(GNA Feature) By Ray Ankomah
Accra, Oct. 15, GNA - Twenty years down the lane, Ghanaian farmers who have distinguished themselves in their various vocations have received a wide range of awards for feeding the nation and boosting its revenue and foreign exchange base.
The designation of the first Friday of December each year as National Farmers' Day is therefore in recognition of our farmers who from year to year defy all the vagaries of the weather to toil and till the land to bring food to the table in practically every household. The going could be good so long as nature continues to smile on us and bless us with abundant rain and bumper harvests.
However, the bushfires and drought of 1983 have taught us that the super-abundance of foodstuffs or bumper harvest we are used to in any good year cannot always be guaranteed hence the need for us as a nation to take critical look at the way our agricultural produce is handled at harvest and the manner they are stored, processed, and packaged for eventual marketing and consumption.
There is also the need to look at the critical issues of food security, safety and good nutrition that can guarantee a healthy and active people or nation.
It is for these reasons that the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) chose the theme "Food Safety and Improved Nutrition for a Health and Active Nation" for this year's Farmers Day celebration to take place in Ho, the Volta Regional capital.
It is a great source of joy when we see our granaries bursting at their seams, or when our yam barns are choked with varying sizes of tubers and our markets are sprawling with cassava and all manner of vegetables.
For a nation blessed with good soil and abundant rain, the above statement could hold for as long as the right conditions persist to ensure food security defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active and health life".
This definition is akin to that of the MOFA, which sees food security as "good quality nutritious food, hygienically prepared, packaged and attractively presented, available in sufficient quantities all year round and located at appropriate places at affordable prices".
Barring any unusual happenings, therefore, food must be produced in abundance and should be accessible all year round to all and sundry at very low or affordable prices.
What could possibly endanger food security are political instability, ecological factors such as adverse weather, drought and desertification, impoverished soils, wrong application of pesticides, pests and diseases as well as inadequate knowledge of post-harvest handling of crops and rainstorms or overabundant rain that tend to destroy rather than favour food production.
Other threats to food security could be in the form of civil strife that grounds all agricultural activities as is the case in Somalia, Cote d'Ivoire and Burundi; pests and locusts invasion as is being witnessed by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger.
But a more serious threat to food security lies in the fact that thousands of young people who could contribute significantly to food production are migrating in their numbers to the cities and urban areas due to lack of education and employment opportunities in the rural areas. They leave behind old and frail men and women who might not be able to continue feeding the entire nation at an assured pace. As indicated by the FAO in its 1992 report, "young people in rural areas could reach their potential without migrating to the cities if there were coordinated efforts to address their educational, medical, economic, political, social and cultural needs".
The FAO contends that, given the right training and education, young people can do much to bring about food security in their countries.
The organisation therefore encourages governments to enhance educational and cultural services in rural areas to make them more attractive to young people; initiate experimental farming programmes directed towards young people and provide grants of land to youth organisations and technical assistance and training.
It also encourages governments to "train people in rural areas in food production techniques and achieving food security, focusing on young women, youth returning to rural areas from cities, young people with disabilities, and other vulnerable and marginalized groups".
Food security must of necessity go with improved nutrition to guarantee a healthy and active life because even when food is procured in right and sufficient quantities, the issues of quality, mode of preparation, packaging, delivery and storage become quite crucial as they have very serious health implications.
For example, the incidence of dioxin, mad cow disease or Bovine Spongiform Encephaly (BSE), bird flu, anthrax, and swine fever have attracted global attention. In countries where these diseases have been detected, their governments have been compelled to cull or slaughter Thousands of affected or infected animals to lessen any possible spread of an epidemic to ensure human safety.
In a paper entitled "Enhanced Food Safety and Improved Nutrition for a Healthy and Active Life", Ms Pauline Addy of "Women in Agriculture Development, states: "The burden of food-borne diseases is significant as it endangers the health of the consumers in all parts of the world."
"Loss of consumer confidence with respect to some aspects of food supply impacts negatively on the situation of food producers and processors.
"Foods eaten can be contaminated by chemical, bacteria, and physical components such as stones, metal, sand, which makes produces, especially grain, to be of poor quality and a potential health hazard." This accounts for the reason why there is a growing concern about the misuse or uncontrolled application of pesticides or agro-chemicals to produce food and cash crops.
It is therefore important to improve and preserve the quality of our planting materials and ensure better animal health to make sure that the food and meat we take in are not contaminated to pose any serious health threats to human beings.
This is where the country's research institutions such as the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agricultural Research Institute (BNARI of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, Crops Research Institute and Botany Departments of our universities should be supported to embark on tissue culture techniques to micro-propagate disease-free planting materials like cassava, yam, plantain, and sweet potato for cultivation by Ghanaian farmers.
The use of biotechnology tools and techniques to ensure improved crop and livestock production, pest management, and animal health must be encouraged provided the necessary safety mechanisms are put in place. Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, for example, has since 1985 embarked on a Gene Bank Project.
This is aimed at collecting genetic resources of plants, micro-organisms, animals, forest trees, and aquatic organisms for classification, identification, evaluation, multiplication and preservation of genetic resources to make sure that there is no shortage of these materials even in very hard times. Ghana can take a cue from this.
At the launch of this year's Farmers' Day in Accra, the sector Minister, Major Courage Quashigah (Rtd) stressed the need for food safety, saying that the failure to maintain effective food safety standards had led to an increase of problems in the health sector. He cited some of the challenges facing food safety as use and misuse of agro-chemicals and their residual effects on humans, and said plans were under way to institute a Food Safety Committee for the Greater Accra Region to ensure proper food handling.
Maj. Quashigah's concern with the global market safety standards for Ghanaian food products was equally crucial because the nation cannot export its products when it fails to meet the requisite preparation, handling and packaging standards accepted in the international market.
The minister's assurance that his ministry was working with Ghanaian exporters to establish a clearing-house where products meant for export could be screened to meet international standards. Equally important is the Ministry's determination to expose the nutritional values of local food products to guide institutions that prepare food to enable them to prepare nutritious diet menus for the people.
The MOFA's decision to introduce the Champion of Champions Contest for past best farmers is quite a good concept because it will not only serve as a booster towards increased food production but will also lead to better agronomy practices to enhance food security and safety. Such a competition among our model farmers will again encourage them to keep in touch with agricultural research officers so as to adopt better farming practices to enhance their produce.
The campaign to ensure food security and safety must, however, not target only food and cash crop producers but must also draw in all other stakeholders in the food chain from production to consumption.
Our hotels, restaurants, chop-bars and others who sell food to consumers must be made to meet a minimum health and safety standard to make sure that the food they serve to their clients are not only hygienically prepared but also have the right amounts of nutrients that can make the people live longer and work harder.
There is thus the need for an increased collaboration among the MOFA, Ministry of Health, Trade and Industry and the President's Special Initiative, research institutes in the universities and other institutions to achieve greater food security and nutrition for the people from the remotest village to the metropolitan, municipal and urban areas.