23 December 2002

ZAMBIA: Worsening nutritional status of children / NGOs to buy cassava surplus

With about three million Zambians identified as needing food aid up to March 2003, concern has been expressed at the worsening nutritional status of children in the country. The latest UN Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Support Office (RIACSO) report on the Southern Africa humanitarian crisis pointed out that "routine nutrition surveillance in Zambia continue to show a slow but steady increase in the proportion of children with acute global malnutrition... National estimates now range between 4 percent and 7 percent. An increase in Protein Energy Malnutrition (PEM) - wasting and underweight - was reported as well as a marked incidence of pellagra, an indication of food shortage and vitamin B deficiency (nicotinic acid)," the RIACSO report said.

Meanwhile, civil society groups in Zambia are trying to raise almost US $60 million to buy the surplus of a bumper cassava crop in the northern region to distribute in areas experiencing critical food shortages, and have warned that too much emphasis is placed on sourcing maize during a food crisis.

According to the latest World Food Programme (WFP) emergency report, Zambia needs 224,000 mt of grain until March next year. WFP has pledged to provide 82,000 mt, but the country would still have a deficit of 120,000 mt. An unexpected complication arose when Zambia said it could not accept genetically modified (GM) relief food and ordered WFP to remove any in-country GM stocks.

The group of about 90 churches and NGOs decided to form an alliance to raise the US $58.6 million to buy the more than 300,000 mt of the crop available. It can either be pounded into a carbohydrate-containing paste similar to maize, or fried as a snack. "We rejected the GM [genetically modified] food that was given to us on our own, we cannot look to the same donor community and foreigners to do things for us, we have to take the initiative," said Bernadette Lubozhya, coordinator of the fundraising drive. "Look at us now, we are panicking because we do not have maize, but our traditional foods are millet, cassava and sorghum. Let us not only return to our traditional staple foods, but farm the cereals best suited to our soil. Maize is an import, that is why it is problematic to grow in Southern Africa," she told IRIN.

A member of the National Association of Peasants and Small Scale Farmers in Zambia, Charles Musonda, said there was a long history of using cassava as a key crop for food security in Zambia as it was drought resistant, easier to grow and had a host of other commercial uses. He said 30 percent of the country’s population depended on cassava as their main source of energy. "This is a win-win situation, people are fed and happy, our produce is bought, we are solvent and able to grow food for the next season. What could be better?" said Musonda.

Lubozhya said that a previous statement by WFP that the GM crisis caused delivery delays as replacement stocks were found, proved the NGOs' view that stocks should be sourced locally. And money from other donors, like Italy, had already been spent on sourcing other food. "We will just have to mobilise our own resources," Lubozhya said. (IRIN)


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