Food security in Ghana: Is growing more food the solution?

Cassava - a staple food in Ghana

Every year, on October 16, World Food Day is observed globally. The theme for this year’s celebration which was “United against Hunger”, as has been the case for some time now was centred on ensuring food security. Food security is said to exist when all people, at all times have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Clearly, ensuring food security is central to the survival of humanity and can never be overemphasized because essentially, we are what we eat. In our world today, there are an estimated 1 billion hungry people and as if that in itself is not a challenge, 70% more food will be needed by the year 2050 to feed the projected global population of 9 billion.  Sad enough, the imminent effects of climate change further compound this problem. Sub-Saharan African countries such as Ghana, it is anticipated, will be the worst hit as higher temperatures will shorten the growing seasons of staple crops.

Interestingly, whenever issues relating to food availability come up the first reaction is, and to a large extent will always be to produce more food. Locally, both private and public interventions in agric have been directed at increasing food production. As important as increasing food production is, it can never be the end in itself to ensuring food security.  Our problem as a nation is not that we do not produce enough but that we do not conserve enough unlike the “advanced world”. Why are some foods, for instance boiled or roasted maize (on the cob) only available at certain periods of the year? What happens to all the fresh produce that abounds after the harvesting season?

According to Ms Sherry Ayittey, Minister of Environment, Science and Technology, in a speech at the opening of the African Union Day of Scientific Renaissance celebration in Accra on June 30, 2010 Ghana loses about GH¢700,000 annually due to inadequate post harvest management particularly of perishable produce.  About 20 to 50 per cent of fruits, vegetables, roots and tubers and about 20 to 30 per cent of cereals and legumes are lost  annually and this she stated has resulted in the country experiencing food insecurity. Obviously, that quantum of money would do our economy a lot of good. How do we plug this leakage? – By investing in Food Science and its related technologies.

Food Science, an applied science, incorporates both the natural sciences and physical sciences such as biology, chemistry, physics, and biochemistry in studying food composition, processing, consumption, nutrition and safety among others. Primarily, food science is useful in creating new ways of maintaining a good supply of adequate, nutritious, safe and affordable food. So what options does this science offer our nation? First, knowledge of food science is crucial in good post harvest practices such as pest and rodent control, proper food handling and storage techniques which hold the key to minimizing the huge post harvest losses that begrudge us. Aside from these, food science offers improved food processing and packaging technologies which will deliver safe, nutritious and affordable foods with longer shelf-lives.

Food preservation and processing techniques- thermal processing (canning, pasteurization), chemical preservation and the development and usage of cheaper packaging materials will facilitate the delivery of affordable and more shelf-stable food products. With investments in Food Technology, our roots and tubers as well as fruit and vegetables which are highly perishable can be transformed into a variety of processed foods that will be available all year round and can also be easily distributed to non-farming areas. For instance, drying techniques can be employed in producing dried fruit with same nutritional profile as fresh fruit while providing variety and convenience as well as preventing wastage. Using this science, our local recipes can be optimized and transformed into instant, ready-to-eat or easy-to-cook- forms and thus made more commerce-friendly.

Food fortification technology can also be employed to reduce nutrient deficiencies. Reformulation research can also be employed as has been done by Cocoa Processing Company in manufacturing the sugar free chocolate, “Aspire chocolate”, to produce products that can be tolerated by persons (e.g. diabetics) with peculiar dietary needs.

The need to address the many problems of food processing and preservation in Ghana inspired the establishment of the  Department of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Ghana, Legon  in 1962 with the mandate to train Nutrition and Food Science professionals for the country and to research, and  provide extension services on Nutrition and Food Science issues. The Food Research Institute (FRI), an affiliate institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was also established in 1963 with a mandate to conduct applied research into problems of food processing and preservation, storage, marketing, distribution and utilization, in support of the food industry and also to advise government on its food policy. Despite lacking adequate funding and facilities for conducting cutting edge research as pertains in the “advanced world”, several food products which are either adequate alternatives to imported materials or have export potential have since been developed by these institutions, some of these being fufu flours, high quality cassava flour, and fermented maize meal, weaning foods whose local production, utilization and export would constitute a large saving on foreign exchange for the country.

Sadly, most of these products have either not been commercialized at all, or are processed on a very small-scale or as in the case of “fufu” flour it is mostly processed outside the country (mostly in China) and imported back into the country by local businesses. With adequate support, both from the public and private sector the activities of these institutions will be better enhanced and they can tap into emerging food technologies such as Food Waste Management that ensure complete raw material usage as well as by-product utilization that can impact positively on cost reduction in addition to waste reduction and

Food Biotechnology which has the potential to increase food production, improve food quality and safety.

In conclusion, we can attain food security not only by harvesting food from a cultivated land but also by ensuring proper post harvest practices and optimizing processing of raw foods into safe, tasty, nutritious, abundant, diverse, convenient, affordable and more readily accessible food products with enhanced shelf-lives.

With Food science and technology, our ability to feed a growing population in a sustainable way, while safeguarding both human and planet health, looks not only possible, but also promising This can however be possible with improved investments not only in the cultivation of more food but also in technologies that enhance processing and preservation. Another foreign exchange earner in the offing!

By Seth Graham-Acquaah & Kofi Quarshie Kamasa
Department of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Ghana, Legon

E-mail: [email protected]

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