by Felix Kwabena Donkor and Kevin Mearns
Good nutrition, health, and well-being are core narratives in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Wholesome food is a common denominator in achieving these ideals. In many places around the world, however, food is more than what meets the eye or is served on the plate. The kaleidoscope of colors and diverse aromas that tease the senses can be traced to a specific cultural group or ecosystem. Moreover, across a whole medley of food types one can think of, food epitomizes invaluable historical as well as cultural norms and practices passed down from previous generations. Compared with the array of consumer items on display in the contemporary economy, food is arguably the simplest and yet most tangible product to associate with biocultural heritage. It is, one might say, the soul of biocultural heritage. Here, we present some insights into the challenges of maintaining the biocultural food heritage of Mpakeni, an Indigenous Swazi village next to the Mthethomusha Game Reserve in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa.
Food is arguably the simplest and yet most tangible product to associate with biocultural heritage.
Indigenous biocultural heritage denotes the unique knowledge and practices of these communities along with related biological resources that they have developed over time. These resources — both tangible and intangible — are intricately woven into the cultural and religious beliefs of about 370 million Indigenous people across the globe, including the residents of Mpakeni. The village is one of the Indigenous communities of the Homelands or Bantustans of apartheid-era South Africa, which were ethnically defined, segregated territories.
Like many other areas in Africa, Mpakeni is susceptible to the effects of climate change. For people in Mpakeni, maintaining and restoring their biocultural heritage is crucial for food security, as recent studies have shown that traditional crops, adapted to local conditions, are more resilient to climatic changes (such as droughts and floods) than high input, commercially sourced crops. Given that the country is in the wake of a record drought, the worst in one hundred years, achieving food security has become imperative. The dire warnings in the most recent special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC-SR 15) make it even more urgent.
In traditional Mpakeni food culture, a common feature of rural dwellings is the cultivation of backyard or homestead gardens where people grow corn, sorghum, beans, groundnuts (peanuts), and sweet potatoes for consumption. The raising of cattle and smaller livestock also is widespread. Mealie-meal (ground corn) and millet are predominant staples, accompanied by meat or chicken, whereas dairy products such as soured milk are common. A variety of leafy vegetables, roots, and fruits complement the traditional diet. In many Swazi communities, fish is considered a taboo, as is the intake of eggs by females. There also exist some clan-specific food taboos regarding certain birds and wild animals.
Maintaining a healthy interaction between youth and the elderly is one means of ensuring that Mpakeni’s invaluable biocultural heritage is preserved for posterity. However, this heritage is threatened by a shift towards processed food and corporate takeover of agriculture. With respect to the former, in our study of Mpakeni we found that a noticeable gulf has opened between younger and older generations on the importance of indigenous foods. Commenting on how youth now regard traditional foods, one elderly community member told us that “the change in attitudes is because young people now eat food from restaurants. In my time we had to go to the farm to get produce to prepare food. We teach young people to farm and cook our indigenous foods, but they are stubborn. They refuse to go to the farm and do not appreciate making our local foods.” This observation was essentially confirmed in a focus group discussion with four young members of the community. They told us they prefer to buy processed food over growing and preparing traditional foods because doing so is part of “a modern lifestyle.” All the things being planted and cooked, you can buy in the shops, so there is no need to go through all that.”
Young people told us they prefer to buy processed food over growing and preparing traditional foods because doing so is part of ‘a modern lifestyle.’
These comments on the worrying shift towards processed foods also highlight an underlying argument with regard to the SDGs on food: there is a need to reconsider, holistically, how we grow, share, and consume food so that its nutritional and cultural values are considered, and not merely the volume being produced or the convenience being offered. This relates to the argument of the youths quoted above, who are irked with the seemingly cumbersome process of preparing indigenous foods. If such attitudes in favor of convenient — but low-nutrition — processed foods prevail, there will be profound implications for the global food and agriculture system’s capacity to provide nourishment for the 815 million people currently faced with hunger and the two billion people projected to be undernourished by 2050. On the other hand, if done properly, agriculture can supply nutritious food and promote decent incomes while facilitating people-centered rural development and safeguarding the environment.
There is a need to reconsider how we grow, share, and consume food so that its nutritional and cultural values are considered.
At the other end of the spectrum from hunger is the escalating incidence of lifestyle diseases, such as obesity, associated with eating too much low-nutrition processed foods. Globally, the incidence of overweightness and obesity has grown by 27.5% among adults, according to World Health Organization reports. In South Africa, thirteen percent of young people are overweight or obese, which is twice the global average of five percent. The disturbing part is that this phenomenon has soared by 47.1% in just three decades among young people. Those who are overweight or obese are more prone to asthma, cognitive impairment, diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, respiratory diseases, mental diseases, and reproductive disorders later in life. Being overweight also compromises their opportunities to participate in educational and recreational activities and increases economic burdens at familial and societal levels. The effect of these changes in dietary patterns overtaxes the national health care budget and impedes sustainable development and comes with indirect costs to households by virtue of lost opportunities for wages. Encouraging the consumption of nutritious indigenous foods is a means of stemming this negative trend.
Ultimately, maintaining and restoring traditional indigenous foods in peoples’ diets can facilitate the attainment of SDG #2 (“End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”). More than this, in places such as Mpakeni, diets based on traditional foods are central to achieving an active and healthy citizenry. All the evidence points to the need for grassroots action across the board to promote such diets. The challenge now is to find innovative means of encouraging youth to adopt and preserve these invaluable traditional foods as part of their biocultural heritage for posterity.
Protecting the biosphere translates into global ecosystems sustaining their structures and functions. A robust appreciation of biocultural heritage is vital to realizing this ideal, particularly in light of pressures from ongoing economic growth. Local economies in which people retain a sense of place, and a sense of their ecological and cultural limits, provide an alternative, resilient model to the infinite growth paradigm.
Felix Kwabena Donkor is an alumnus of the Erasmus Mundus Joint European Masters in Environmental Sciences and currently a research associate at the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, University of South Africa. His research interests include food security, sustainable rural livelihoods, environmental governance, and sustainable development.
Kevin Mearns is a physical geographer who has an interest in environmental management, ecology, and ecotourism. Currently he is a departmental lecturer within the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of South Africa.
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United Nations. (2018). Goal 2: Zero Hunger. Retrieved on September 10, 2018, from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/