This year’s very dry autumn, winter and spring in Lesotho is ringing alarm bells throughout the country. The capital city, Maseru, is down to a very limited supply of potable water. There is no significant rainfall forecast until the summer season, December / February. Last year’s grain crop was slightly better than the two previous years. This improved situation still left 40% of the population, some 725,000, reliant on food aid. And, a series of very low grain crop yields over previous years is having a very severe effect on the population’s future food supply.
There are many cases of malnutrition and a general lack of food in the rural population of Lesotho. The extensive cases of childhood growth stunting and the lack of food security is the elephant in the room. It is over fifty years since Lesotho has been able to grow enough food to feed itself. This situation has been partly the result of over 200 years of mining of soil minerals, soil organic matter and water extraction — from an annual mono-crop system of agriculture.
The reliance on one grain crop, maize, has been disastrous, causing a reduction in annual yield and an increase in soil erosion. These effects, combined with global warming-induced climate change and its associated adverse effects on weather patterns have destroyed Lesotho’s current agriculture.
The effects of this are far reaching. Over 80% of Lesotho’s population live in the rural regions and are dependent on subsistence agriculture. The farmers of Lesotho will continue to plough the lifeless, barren soil of their fields and plant one crop of maize per year. This is in spite of the seasonal evidence of declining food quality and production and the increase of soil erosion. The desperation of farmers is self-evident in their madness and the bordering-on-the-insane practice of ploughing and growing one single crop for over 200 years.
Ploughing and maize are very deeply engrained in the culture of the people. Many farmers are unable to plough their fields, having no access to healthy animals or tractors. There is movement of the rural population to the towns and cities which lack housing, employment and services to cope with this influx of farmers who have abandoned their fields. The current agricultural crisis can be an opportunity to use new methods and grow new food crops that can cope with the changing climatic conditions.
Pseudo grains crops have the potential to feed the people and prevent soil erosion. They have several advantages over the current food crops, maize and sorghum — the ability to thrive in hot weather and a short growing season. Mid December is considered to be the deadline for planting maize and sorghum in Lesotho. The timing and strength of the summer rainfall can be critical to the success of seed germination and the crop yield. Too little and the crop will fail, too much and flooding causes destruction of the crop. The current rainfall prediction for the summer rainfall season is late and heavy. In the event of a failure of the maize and sorghum crops in December pseudo grain crops could be planted in late December / January and harvested in February / March. This would provide food that’s high in nutritional value before the Autumn frost and cold weather occurs. And, the surplus can be stored and continue to feed the population until the harvest of the next maize growing season.
The pseudo grain crops include Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus, A hypochondriacus), Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum). The nutritional value of these plants is truly amazing. Amarnthus leaf has 26 – 30% protein. 100 grams is half the daily protein need of an adult. Its iron content is five times daily need, calcium content double daily need and vitamin A, no less then 20 times the daily need. Seed production is immense at 3,000 per gram. It also has a high amino acid content, such as lysine, valuable as a supplement to maize and wheat, which lack this essential ingredient. A very important feature of Quinoa is its arginine and histidine content which is needed by children for their physical and cognitive development. Quinoa is also gluten-free, so is in demand as gluten resistance increases in the over-developed world. Quinoa seed is in high demand and has a current value of US $1,400 per ton. The United Nations is very impressed with the potential of pseudo grains to increase food security in sub-Saharan Africa and has made 2013 the year of Quinoa.
The pseudo grain plants have the potential to become a very important part of Lesotho agriculture. Over time they may also develop plant varieties that are unique to Lesotho.
But, a number of barriers need to be overcome for this to occur:
- People’s reluctance to include new foods in their diet. Pap (maize) and Marog (cabbage and weeds from fields) are the staple foods of Lesotho.
- The lack of any extensive planting of pseudo grain crops in the farmers’ fields and the lack of seed supply from plant varieties that are suitable for Lesotho soils and growing conditions.
The continuing lack of food and extensive land degradation may cause a change in food dietary habits and government policy.
Amaranth and Quinoa have been sown in the garden centre at Phelisanong. The growing of these new food plants will generate interest from the local farmers, turning the current food crisis into a time of opportunity. This may contribute to the beginning of an organic agriculture revolution in Lesotho. The growing of the miracle pseudo grain plants, during late summer in Lesotho is a permaculture design for disaster in action.