Agricultural specialist points to Africa as food model



Americans need to bring food and farming back to the local level, an agricultural specialist told a Detroit Mercy audience March 29.

In a talk about farming in Sub-Saharan Africa, Dr. Carol Thompson, a Northern Arizona University professor, spoke of the need to grow food locally as a way to increase the genetic wealth and nutrition of food.

The seeds most farmers in America are using are just copies of the same seed, she said.

The more copies made, the less nutritional density a plant has, she said.

Detroit Mercy’s ReBUILDetroit program hosted the discussion on the current state of agriculture, with help from the Great Lakes Bioneers, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and the Healing Support Network.

One reason for the success in Sub-Saharan Africa is that the food base is made up of 2,000 plants, according to Thompson.

In America, 75 percent of the food produced comes from only 12 plants, she said.

“That is one of the reasons why we (Americans) are sick,” she said.

Africa is seeing success because of biodiversity in its agriculture, something that the U.S. has yet to emphasize due to the culture of industrial farming, according to Thompson.

It is important because as ecosystems evolve biodiversity will ensure that food is always produced, she said.

With climate change becoming a bigger issue, biodiversity is more essential than ever, according to Thompson.

Small African farms are maintaining their biodiversity through participatory plant breeding, community seed banks and farmer field school, she said.

Participatory plant breeding is offered as a workshop within communities where farmers share plants that are doing well.

This is the equivalent of scientists in a lab testing plants to see which ones are going to survive, except in Africa they are in a field instead of indoors, she said.

Community seed banks exist in America but are rare here, she said.

A majority of the time, seeds have to be bought from an industrial farming company.

Having a community seed banks allows farmers to conserve the plants they are growing.

It is difficult to do that in the U.S. when most available seeds are owned by three major companies that control which plants they want to conserve, Thompson added.

With farmer field schools, community elders teach youth about their methods so that they can continue the work.

Community plays a huge factor in why everything works so well in these African communities, she said.

In the U.S., though more community gardens are popping up, farming remains centralized and industrial, Thompson noted.

Through the decentralization of the food market in Sub-Saharan Africa, African nations have been able to increase the genetic wealth of their food, she said.

Many people who came to the Detroit Mercy talk were already aware of these issues.

The main reason they came was to discuss how together they can help increase biodiversity in their neighborhoods.

Razia Curtis said she has been educating people about sprouts, seeds, vitamins and nutrients for 32 years.

Others who don’t have as much education in gardening came to hear what community leaders had to say.

Dr. Jahzara Mayes Otoo noted, “I’m continuously trying to learn as much as I can to be as healthy as I can.”