Across the world, discussions around food are changing from focusing on just whether there are enough quantities to feed everybody to whether people are consuming quality. Experts are worried about increasing Non- Communicable Diseases which have a direct link to what people eat. Obesity used to be mainly a problem of the west but the 2016/17 Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) figures put prevalence in Uganda at 14% among young adults. The same data showed 24.4% of the population faces acute food insecurity. Antonio Querido, the new Uganda country representative for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) spoke to the Independent’s FLAVIA NASSAKA about these issues, elimination of hunger, climate change and biosafety.
How would you describe Uganda’s food security situation?
Uganda is a country with a huge potential when it comes to agriculture. It’s blessed with a lot of water and fertile soils which can guarantee sustained production and food security. But when we look at the statistics in terms of food and nutrition, we realise that there is still a lot of work that we need to do to ensure that the rural poor are targeted and supported to become food secure. We also have to diversify the type of food that they have since now it’s not only about quantity but quality. I was aware of Uganda’s potential even before I came in; that’s why we at FAO are now trying to see that our on-going programmes respond to these challenges.
Most of these programmes are targeting rural areas yet the reality now is that urban dwellers are food insecure too; especially when you look at it in terms of quality eating. What’s your view?
That’s true because UBOS figures tell us 64% of Ugandans can’t afford three meals per day and 40% eat below the daily dietary intake of calories. We focus on urban settings too because we understand the pressure that comes with movement of people to the city; especially in a country where the economy is not doing well. In urban areas we provide technical support into the kind of agriculture that we know happens there. Our role is to ensure that it’s done in a sustainable manner. But, we should also not forget that the mass movement of people to the center also creates opportunities in the rural areas that’s why we also have a programme focused on making agriculture more attractive to young people as a form of income generation.
We put more emphasis on the rural areas because it’s where there’s more potential to invest in agriculture with plenty of land planting crops, rearing cattle and establishing fish farms.
Parliament recently passed a biosafety law that regulates research, development and release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). It had been shelved for long. It was first introduced in 2012 as National Biotechnology and Bio-safety Bill but turned out very controversial. What’s your view about use of GMOs?
seeds has been a huge area of discussion with particular concerns on biodiversity and the perspective of food security and safety. We have to ensure that GMO seeds don’t have undesirable impact on the ecosystem. The law in place should understand the implications such that decisions are made accordingly. Most importantly, it requires having in place strong institutions to monitor and follow up some GMO seeds if safety is to be guaranteed.
Are they a solution to food insecurity?
Yes, in some cases depending on what you are modifying – when you start inserting genes from animals into plants then that becomes tricky and requires a lot of attention. We need to further study what we need to modify and what we don’t want modified.
Apart from that, even without them we can still make major strides in agriculture. Farmers have a range of new technologies at their disposal in the area of pest control, seeds improvement that can greatly improve quantities. In Africa, what we should seriously consider is investing in mechanisation if we are to have substantial leap.
This year, FAO marks 40 years of operating in Uganda. All these years, you have been pushing for increased agriculture production, mechanisation and achieving the goal of zero hunger but progress has remained low. Where is the problem?
Agriculture has traditionally been a sector with least investment. In the case of Uganda, its allocated only 3% of the total budget yet in 2015 African leaders meeting in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea adopted a resolution to invest 10% in order to accelerate agricultural growth and transformation because they realised that to see changes in the sector they have to invest more in institutions, in processing and farm inputs. We will know how countries are progressing in two years’ time but I can say there’s a positive trend when it comes to Uganda – aware of its limitations as a country.
We also need to see the role of private sector in agriculture. The government has a role of creating opportunities for them to invest through increasing access to finances for entrepreneurs in the sector.
What about development partners like you?
Our resources are not loans but donations that have to be mobilised from other partners. We at the beginning of every cooperation cycle sign an agreement where we commit the amount of resources we will contribute and then try to mobilise for implementation. For this cycle, we have made a commitment of $100 million for the next five years. As you know, globally, donations continue to reduce. Governments that depend on aid should be critically thinking about how to go around this challenge.
Uganda, as one of the biggest refugee hosting countries, has been depending on FAO for food donations. Should this trend worry us?
No. We are already making them self- reliant. The response is a coordinated effort under the leadership of the Office of the Prime Minister. It has been designed under a simple basis that most of the refugees were farmers and herders in their areas of origin. You know we have a community that we are not certain of how long they will be here; so we resolved to make them self- reliant because we have the land that they can acquire and the technical knowhow. This is not only because it puts a lot of pressure in terms of response but from the humanitarian perspective, people can put the energy that they have into good work. It improves their self- esteem when they stop depending on only food rations and they can also contribute to the economy in terms of providing a labour force.
What will be the focus of FAO in Uganda as we embark on the next 40 years journey?
The priorities are set by the government of Uganda but we will continue to insist on increasing production and productivity. We also want to ensure that use of water, use of fertilisers and pesticides is done in a sustainable manner. The challenge for us is to feed every one and to leave a production base that is valid for the future generation. That’s why we are looking into sectors like aquaculture that have a huge potential but have not been utilised. Recently we launched a project in 25 communities where 20 to 25 youth are supported to engage in aquaculture. The idea is to make them look at fisheries as a business. Our role is to closely work with them and equip them with the necessary techniques for sustained production.
Finally, countries in the west are facing a huge challenge of obesity; Uganda’s situation is not yet that bad. What lessons should we be taking from what’s happening elsewhere?
Over weight is almost 20% in Uganda, that can’t be taken lightly. We should be looking at how we increase nutrition awareness. It’s only through change of habits and the way we feed ourselves that will save us.