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February 22, 2019

High fertiliser prices could be bad for your health

High fertiliser prices mean Kenyans can't grow enough food.
High fertiliser prices mean Kenyans can't grow enough food.

There are many ways to judge who would be contenders for the title of ‘world’s most famous human ancestor’.

Genghis Khan, who died in 1227, known in his lifetime by many names including ‘Mighty Manslayer’ and ‘Scourge of God’, is calculated to have 16 million male descendants alive today, meaning that he fathered more children, 700 years ago than Ancentus Akuku ‘Danger’, who died in 2010, reportedly leaving behind 100 widows and more than 200 children.

Other than being prolific, just being old can lay claim to the title. Lucy, full name Australopithecus afarensis, lived 3.2 million years ago, was one of the first humans to walk upright gracefully, thereby confusing the men of the time.

Ardi, Ardipithecus ramidus, lived 4 million years ago and also walked upright but has a smaller brain than Lucy. Mathematically speaking females like Lucy and Ardi, despite their small size are more likely to have impacted today’s society than ‘tough’ men like Genghis and Akuku Danger.

One important point to note, despite European protests of the early 20th century, they believed that all good things about humans including their origin started and ended in Europe. This has some implications for our health today.

The world population of about seven billion is sustained by improving economic conditions, better health and most important increased food production. In Europe and America the typical citizen does not live on a farm, nor do they spend much of their money on food because their farms are very productive. So they can spend on other things, education, infrastructure, going to the moon and so on.

Unfortunately, these conditions do not apply for the typical rural African, who does not produce enough to feed anyone let alone themselves. The African spends up to three quarters of their income on food, leaving little surplus to invest in education, healthcare and infrastructure. On reason why Africans produce so little is that the soil they farm is so poor. Traditionally, African farmers have been used to ‘mining’ land, clear some land grow a crop until the yields drop, move on to a new piece of land, add nothing back.

Now with land grabbers everywhere it is no longer possible to just ‘move on’. Tilling the same land repeatedly requires addressing historical injustices, which means investments to improve soil fertility especially when the soil has been cultivated for thousands of years.

Unfortunately for the typical African farmer, the price of fertilizer is three to four times the world price, the distortion a function of incompetence, corruption and lack of vision of either the past or the future.

Fertilizers enhance growth of plants in two main ways: by providing nutrients and by improving the physical characteristics of soil enabling plants to grow better. The main micronutrients in fertilisers are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium followed by calcium, magnesium and sulphur. There are also important micronutrients such as copper, iron and zinc. People require the very same nutrients as plants. Eating food deficient in some key elements might meet calorie requirements but a person will still be lacking some essential nutrients especially protein.

Unlike carbohydrates, which we can obtain from a variety of sources, there are ten essential amino acids, the building blocks of proteins which cannot be made by the body. Further most plant-based foods, with the exception of soya beans, do not contain all the ten essential amino acids at once. Meat, chicken and eggs are however, considered complete proteins because they have all the essential amino acids needed by the body to produce protein.

An adult requires about 50 grams of protein a day, that amount is found in just 85 grams of lean meat. A cup of beans, about 200 grams, has about 30 grams of protein, while a cup of milk has about eight grams of protein.

A caution before you leap and start eating huge chunks of meat daily! Most meat is not lean and so each gram of protein comes with saturated fat, which has its own problems, so it really should be just a little bit of meat per day.

To have a balanced diet, humans need to have both plant and animal sources. In turn these plants and animals can also not be nutrient deficient. The role of the farmer is therefore to produce enough food from plants to feed humans directly and animals from which we can get our proteins.

Our national malnutrition rate is still very high; a basic problem is a non-productive agricultural sector. The root cause is poor soil management coupled with very high fertilizer prices.

Manage that and as a country we would be on our way to meeting our health targets.

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