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Fertilizer for yam and other farm produce: beneficial or harmful?

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

The atrocious Russia invasion of Ukraine which has impacted so severely on global food supplies, has also catapulted into the headlines the importance of fertilizer in the food chain, amid general food security fears.

Interestingly, on Wednesday this week Africa Day 2022 was celebrated under the theme “Strengthening Resilience in Nutrition and Food Security on the African Continent”.
(Africa Day is observed annually to commemorate the founding on May 25, 1963 of the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union.)

However, the fertilizer scarcity issue has also renewed my age-old concern about the safety of fertilizer in food crops, notably vegetables and especially yam.

Thus when I saw the word “yam” in the heading of a recent newspaper article, “Earnings from yam exports could hit $78m using Geographical Indications”, it grabbed my attention immediately. I was hoping to find in it something related to the phenomenon of the disturbing decline in yam quality.

Published in the May 16 issue of the Daily Graphic, the article was by Dr Courage Besah-Adanu, “an Intellectual Property Expert and a Consultant at the Ghana Industrial Property Office, Registrar General’s Department, Accra”.

Alas, the article didn’t go into my particular interest. Still, despite my disappointment, it certainly had some enlightening information about the possibility of Ghana earning much more from yam export, with just a little effort.

Dr Besah-Adanu highlights the following as possible “revenue generation and sources of development funding … (which are) topical issues currently dominating public discourses in the country ….
“It is against this background that those working in the Industrial Property Right protection space wish to uncover some low-hanging revenue fruits that the nation could innovatively harvest (emphasis added).”

He advocates that Ghana should invest in the use of “Geographical Indications (GIs)”, explained as “signs used on products from a particular geographical origin with specific qualities or a reputation that are essentially attributed to the place of origin.”

“A worldwide study in 2018 on the economic impact of GIs showed that on the average, prices doubled (in some cases tripled) for products compared with similar products that are not GI registered.”

“Global exports of Yam were valued at US$177m. As the lead exporter of Yam, Ghana has a world share of 22.1 per cent with our export value to the global markets as at 2019 standing at US$39.1m.” In the writer’s opinion, Ghana can earn more than twice this amount through the use of an ‘origin label’, notably through the popular ‘pona’ or ‘puna’ yam.

“The Industrial Property Office of the Registrar General’s Department has the overall mandate to identify, develop, register and protect origin labelled products for Ghana,” Dr Besah-Adanu concludes.

His pointers should be useful be of interest to yam farmers, the Non-Traditional Exports authorities, as well as the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) itself.

However, I wish the article had explained ‘GIs’ in more detail, and even added some illustrations for a better understanding of his proposal.
I

’m aware that some Asian shops in London have been selling yam with conspicuous signs announcing “Pona/Puna yam from Ghana”. Could that not mean that there were signs on the yam packaging, indicating country of origin?

Nevertheless, Dr Besah-Adanu deserves commendation for this pragmatic piece on the possibilities of Ghana increasing earnings from yam, a “low-hanging revenue” source that should be exploited.

I pray that, similarly, his idea will also generate the interest of others who may be doing research on, or who have found answers to, the problem of the poor quality of yam, to share their findings, with the public.

It used to be that after cutting a piece of yam, one could store the remainder for use later without any problem. But these days, there is little shelf life.

Apart from the inferior taste, now once a yam is cut, the rest tends to go bad quickly, the flesh changing from whitish or pale cream to a blackish or brownish colour, most unappetising and downright scary. One usually ends up throwing it away, as the discolouration makes one apprehensive about whether its safety as a food.

Some people attribute the phenomenon to incorrect use of fertilizer and if this continues, will it not have a negative effect on the ‘Ghana Brand’ – if that is not happening already?

Could the colour change be the result of wrong fertilizer application by untrained yam farmers, as believed? It can’t be taken for granted that all farmers know how to use agricultural chemicals properly.

Is fertilizer beneficial or harmful, or, as the Akan saying puts it, is it ‘domfuor’ or ‘kumfuor’?
Perhaps the current fertilizer shortage should be viewed as a cue for new direction. And, one may ask, why isn’t more attention being paid to organic farming?

As a reference source explains, “organic farming entails: use of cover crops, green manures, animal manures and crop rotations to fertilize the soil, maximize biological activity and maintain long-term soil health; and use of biological control, crop rotations and other techniques to manage weeds, insects and diseases.”

If the MoFA is aware of the yam spoilage problem, as they must be, what are they doing about it? Even simple advice to the public as to whether such yam is safe to eat, or how one should deal with it, would be helpful.

Furthermore, the suspicion of misapplication of fertilizer is not related to yam alone. Rural dwellers themselves have long been complaining that the use of fertilizer has impacted negatively on the taste of their crops, despite boosting attractiveness. Produce affected include vegetables like tomatoes, garden eggs and pepper.

What is being done about training, ensuring food safety if the wrong application of agrochemicals is to blame? Shouldn’t there be a return to organic farming, the practices in use before the proliferation of fertilizers?

This Russia-Ukraine war consequence must prompt a new look at fertilizer usage in Ghanaian agriculture.

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