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An Analysis Of Malnutrition In Africa

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This paper examines the relationship between climate change and malnutrition in Africa, specifically through the scope of rice production. Although Africa depends heavily on rice for sustenance to feed its growing population, this paper explores alternative options to rice due to rice’s nutrient depletion over time. The paper first delves into the history of rice in Africa and compares African rice to the rice currently grown in Africa. Climate change is then discussed, specifically focusing on the effect of greenhouse gases on food (rice) production. The differences between C3 and C4 plants is used to further illustrate climate change’s effects on produce, such as rice, as well as introduce the proposal of replacing rice crops with C4 crops, such as teff and fonio. These plants are not affected by climate change in the way C3 plants are and, therefore, retain nutritional value. Further, these plants are native to Africa and are therefore better equipped to thrive in African climates and environments.


When envisioning food that provides sustenance, rice is likely not the first thing that comes to the mind of an American, yet to citizens of other countries rice may be the only food which comes to mind. Globally, rice is a staple food as it is responsible for feeding over half the world’s population (Nguyen, n.d.); as a populous, developing continent, African countries are no exception. However, due to the effects of global warming rice crops have suffered, both in production and in quality. The prominent increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, specifically the increase in CO2, has caused plants to lose nutritional value. Because of the nutrient deficiencies in plants, reliance on rice could actually be aiding in malnutrition in Africa. This paper will explore the history of rice in Africa, climate change’s effect on rice consumption, and possible alternatives to improve the current status of malnutrition.

Malnutrition In Africa

Malnutrition refers to an improper intake of “energy and/or nutrients” (WHO, 2016, para.1), usually of protein and/or micronutrients. Malnutrition can result in physical and cognitive impairments as well as diarrhea and death (Berkhout, Malan, & Kram, 2019). Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of malnutrition occurs in African countries. In 2004 half of Africa’s population lived below the international poverty line, and in 2018 that statistic remained unchanged (Beasley, 2009; Oluwatayo & Ojo, 2018). Poverty in Africa aids malnutrition as many African citizens are unable to afford a proper meal; it is estimated that the average citizen in Sub-Saharan Africa lives on “less than $1 USD/day” (Beasley, 2009, P.134). Additionally, the rate of population growth in Africa is one of the fastest in the world; there are currently over 1 billion people in Africa, which is double what its population was in the 1980’s (Wentling, 2016). The continent’s rapid growth rate makes it extremely difficult for the country to sustain itself. Further, the population’s average age is 19 years old which means that the average person is old enough to reproduce but young enough to be unemployed (Wentling, 2016). These rising numbers put pressure on the land and soil, which cannot compete with the growing need for food. Perhaps the ever-increasing demand for food is what motivates the majority of Africans to pursue a career in agriculture (Beasley, 2009).


Rice is a staple crop in Africa; in 2017, over 30 million tonnes of rice was produced in Africa (Food and Agricultural Organization, 2018). Over the past few decades the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has noticed that the demand for rice far outweighs its supply, as its demand “is growing faster than that of any other major staple” (FAO, 2016, para. 9). However, it is important to note that the rice which is currently being grown is not native to Africa.

A Brief History Of Rice In Africa

The history of rice in Africa is complex, mainly because its origins have been highly disputed. Originally rice crops in African were credited to European settlers in Africa in the 1800s; however, evidence was uncovered that rice had been grown in Africa prior to Portuguese exploration of Africa in the fifteenth century (Carney, 2001). Credit for rice crops was given to Portuguese settlers instead of Africans; in both cases other nations prejudices prevented rightful attribution of rice crops to Africans because settlers refused to recognize that a. Africa had a robust and complex rice growing system b. that Africa had their own species of rice. Yet despite efforts to ignore African rice culture, an abundance of historic Muslim documents uncovered that African rice crops dated prior to the tenth century (Carney, 2001).

African rice, also known as O. glaberrima, was originally grown by African farmers as it was suited for the difficult African climate, namely “nutrient deficiencies, acidity, salinity, and flooding” (Carney, 2001, p.143) which were typical in African climates. Because glaberrima was impervious to these weather and soil conditions it grew quickly; however, African rice also shattered during milling. Thus O. sativa- Asian rice- was introduced to farmers (as it did not shatter); however, Asian rice was not native to Africa and therefore could not withstand its weather and soil. Despite its promise of producing higher yields, Asian rice did not grow well under African conditions (Fields-Black, 2008). Starting in the 1970’s onwards Africa experienced terrible droughts and unstable weather conditions. Due to these weather conditions, Africa’s food production was severely decreased from the 1970’s until the new millennium (Beasley, 2009). As an already struggling region, this decrease in production alarmed other nations of the world. After many international summits, a hybrid of African and Asian rice was developed in 2002 to combat rice shortages from drought. The project was a collaboration between the West African Rice Development Association and the United Nations (Chonghaile, 2002). Unfortunately, this hybrid rice did not save the rice industry as it could not compete with the effects of climate change. As temperatures continued to increase soil became dryer and weeds and other pests become abundant (Nhamo, Rodenburg, Zenna, Makombe, & Luzi-Kihupi, 2014). Despite the genetically modified attempt, rice production continued to suffer.

Impacts Of Climate Change

Climate change has a strong relationship with food and water supplies. Climate change creates erratic weather systems, which can be atypical for the given climate, that will negatively impact produce and water quality; this, by default, impacts levels of agricultural production and malnutrition.


Water supply is an important casualty of climate change. Weather irregularities can cause changes in water quantity, such as flooding and drought, both of which can lead to contamination of water and/or pest “breeding sites” (Moreno, 2006, p.159). Africa’s water supply is a victim of climate change as much of its water supply is unsafe to drink as it carries disease. The lack of clean water has attributed to a rise in anemia; further, as water is not usable Africa’s already struggling agriculture suffers further (Wentling, 2016).

CO2 And Produce

Another impact of climate change relates to the greehnouse effect, the burning of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which has been a key element in atmospheric changes. Carbon dioxide (CO2), is a prominently studied greenhouse gas, as it is both produced and absorbed by living things. An area of particular importance relating to CO2 is that it is “broken down by photosynthesis in plants” (Dutta & Radner, 2006, p.253). CO2 will impact some plants more than others, namely C3 plants. C3 plants are characterized based on their method of photosynthesis, the Calvin cycle (Myer et al., 2014). Due to their method of photosynthesis C3 plants are more susceptible to disruption from the effects of climate change, namely the increase of CO2. Unfortunately, around “85% of plant species are C3 plants” (Georgia State University, n.d., para.3), rice being no exception. However, increased CO2 has additional consequences on plant development. Myer et al.’s (2014) meta-analysis of grain micronutrients found that the high concentrations of CO2 have resulted in C3 produce with lower protein and micronutrient contents. For example, protein in rice plants decreased by 7.8%, a more dramatic decrease than found in wheat plants (Myers et al., 2014). Further, zinc and iron had also significantly decreased in rice plants. In many countries, such as Africa, that depend on C3 plants like rice for their protein and micronutrient intake, this poses a serious concern for elevated levels of malnutrition.

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In contrast to the protein and micronutrient deficiencies in C3 plants, C4 plants, which have different methods of photosynthesis, do not exhibit these deficiencies amidst increased CO2 levels. C4 plants “concentrate CO2 internally” (Myers et al., 2014, p.140) and are therefore are not impacted by an increase in CO2; further, they are able to grow in harsher conditions, such as the weather conditions produced by climate change.

The Future Of Rice

It is predicted that regardless of attempts to decrease CO2, “global CO2 in the atmosphere” (Myers et al., 2014, p.140) will continue to rise for at least the next 40 years. CO2 rise, along with other climate aggravates will continue to destabilize weather and erode soil. As the environment continues to suffer our agriculture will also be significantly impacted; it is estimated that within the next 30 years “world grain production per capita will likely decline by at least 14%” (Cheng, 2018, para. 1). This will not only impact Africa’s nutrition, but its economy as agriculture remains the top occupation. Rice, like many other C3 plants, cannot grow under very hot or cold temperatures, making it a poor choice of crop during erratic climate conditions. Additionally, genetically manipulated plants, such as the hybrid rice being used, are also sensitive to cold temperatures and become “more susceptible to pathogen infections” (Cheng, 2018, para.10). Finally, genetic manipulation of plants also further reduces biodiversity which contributes to soil erosion. It is clear that continuing to rely on the current agricultural system will only prove harmful for the future of produce, both in quantity and quality.

To solve the agricultural dilemma, some have proposed bioengineering C3 plants to mimic the systems of a C4 plant; a solution which is eerily similar to the decision to hybridize rice. However, there are several problems with this idea, the first being that this project will take a lot of time and money. The second problem is that C4 plants have a far more complex system than C3 plants, making it extremely difficult to superimpose into the C3 plants. C4 plants have “less dense topology, higher robustness, better modularity, and higher CO2 and radiation use efficiency” (Wang, Guo, Li, & Wang, 2012, p.1), further differentiating core aspects of its physiology from C3 plants.


Based on the literature presented, an appropriate intervention would be to replace rice crops with C4 plants which are indigenous to the area and, due to their class of plant, aren’t impacted by the greenhouse effect. Some C4 plants are also ancient grains, which is an umbrella term for plants that have not changed or been changed over time (either through plant breeding or natural plant evolution) (Strausfogel, 2018). They are more nutrient (protein) dense, which means one can maintain nutritional value while eating less. Malnutrition isn’t solved by eating more food, it’s solved by eating more nutrient dense foods.

C4 plants not only help with current malnutrition by correcting protein deficiencies caused by nutrient deficient rice, they can also prevent future malnutrition by helping Africa’s economy. Ancient grains have become a valuable food source in today’s climate, as other countries seek to find a solution to the quandary of the decreasing nutrient value in plants. C4 plants do not lose nutritional value; therefore, they are not only valuable to Africans, who need nourishment, but other countries around the world whose agriculture also suffers from malnutrition.

Although there are many kinds of ancient grains, the two that are best suited for this intervention are teff and fonio. Teff and fonio, which are also C4 plants, are perennial plants (not seasonal) that are native to Africa. These plants can be ground or milled to make various doughs, formulas, and starches to substitute that of rice (National Research Council, 1996). These plants prevent the soil wind/water erosion and run-off. These grains also don’t need pesticides, are immune to pathogens, and are made to withstand severe weather (National Research Council, 1996). Native perennials have very high protein contents, some with “roughly twice that of today’s main cultivated cereals” (National Research Council, 1996, p.257). Additionally, because these plants can grow year-round, farmers would save time and energy from not having to replant crops seasonally.

Teff has high fiber levels, is gluten free, and has a low glycemic index (FAO, 2018). Low glycemic index (GI) foods generally allow for even toned metabolism or more consistent energy expenditure needs; additionally, low GI diets have been shown to prevent diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers (Omoregie, Osagie, 2008). Further, Teff can be stored for long periods of time without damage and is a highly valuable and profitable crop. Teff also has exceptional levels of iron and calcium (National Research Council, 1996).

Fonio, a cereal grain, has developed the nickname hungry rice by European settlers who loved fonio’s exceptional taste and “reserved it particularly for chiefs, royalty, and special occasions” (National Research Council, 1996, p.59). Fonio is rich in amino acids, is an extremely fast-growing crop, and is not affected by poor quality soil. “Fonio protein contains almost twice as much methionine as egg protein contains” (National Research Council, 1996, p.64); methionine is a critical amino acid involved in protein synthesis.


Reincorporation of native C4 plants, such as teff and fonio would help combat malnutrition levels in Africa by providing a more successful yield than rice crops, as well as providing higher nutritional value. Teff and fonio, being native to Africa, would not be affected by soil erosion as they are designed to grow in difficult climates. Further, they would help sustain biodiversity. As ancient grains, teff and fonio are perennial grains and would therefore prevent soil degradation as opposed to seasonal grains. Finally, introduction of such crops would save farmers energy, as year-round crops, and may aid Africa’s agricultural economy by offering crops which offer a solution to the effects of climate change.


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