Participants at the WaterNet Symposium UKZN-WRC-SHEFS Special Session.

WaterNet Symposium Session Champions Indigenous Crops for Food Security

At the 21st Southern African Development Community (SADC) WaterNet Symposium held virtually this year, UKZN’s Centre for Transformative Agricultural Food Systems (CTAFS) united with WaterNet, South Africa’s Water Research Commission (WRC) and the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) international and interdisciplinary research partnership to host a joint special session.

WaterNet is a regional network of university departments and research and training institutes specialising in building capacity in water resources management by strengthening collaboration and training programmes in southern Africa. Its annual symposium promotes interaction between researchers, academics, practitioners and policymakers in the water and related sectors, with this 21st event focusing on integrated water resources management for sustainable development in eastern and southern Africa.

The special session focused on reinforcing the role of underutilised indigenous and traditional crops, and linking water, food and health. The session explored the important role that neglected and underutilised (NUS) crop species can play in creating a sustainable food system in southern Africa that ensures sustainable and healthy food for its people and addresses malnutrition and food insecurity, vulnerability to climate change and environmental issues, and socioeconomic issues; and brings about inclusivity and equity in the food system.

This theme was especially pertinent, said organisers, given prevalent water scarcity in the regions discussed, and the need to explore these crops’ potential and how to enhance the extent and quality of their contribution.

Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi of the CTAFS acknowledged the WRC for facilitating the session and for playing a key role in funding NUS research in South Africa for over a decade, making it a focal area for their ongoing strategy.

Principal Investigator on the SHEFS project, Professor Alan Dangour of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, presented a global perspective on integrating NUS towards more resilient, sustainable local food systems.

Citing evidence from research on the changing quantity and quality of cereal, vegetable and legume, and fruit, nut and seed crops under deteriorating environmental change conditions worldwide, Dangour emphasised the need for alternative crops to build future food systems that are inclusive and equitably deliver what people actually want.

Professor Festo Massawe of the University of Nottingham Malaysia presented on how to tap into the biodiversity that these crops represent and encourage more use of diverse crops.

‘In addition to climate change affecting how we grow our crops, biodiversity is declining at every level and it underpins how we produce our food,’ said Massawe. ‘We’re not tapping into the treasure trove of plant species biodiversity that we have, and in fact are losing it.’

Massawe emphasised the importance of transdisciplinary research and partnerships and collaboration to diversify food sources by promoting the mainstreaming of NUS, saying work remained to be done on the wider uptake of sustainable, biodiversity-friendly practices, such as agroecology, and on the current constraints on mainstreaming NUS crops.

Professor Zerihun Tadele of the University of Bern in Switzerland discussed linking underutilised crops to supporting sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development, outlining the various interrelated challenges facing NUS and the need to target many different topics, including agronomy, breeding, economics, the environment and equity to build an inclusive economy.

The second part of the session, convened by WaterNet and the WRC, comprised discussions on the way forward for the SADC water agenda post COVID-19, inviting researchers to join SADC and WRC activities to inform agendas that will build resilience in the sector.

Words: Christine Cuénod