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Mpumalanga’s deadly air spells trouble for food safety

Food producers in Mpumalanga warn that the quality food cultivated in the province is being jeopardised by air pollution. Photo: Supplied

By Duncan Masiwa

Mpumalanga's poor air quality has come under severe scrutiny for breaching residents’ Constitutional right to an environment which is not harmful to their health and well-being. However, the province’s unsafe level of air pollution not only poses a risk to human health but food safety as well.

Experts say the province’s air pollution is a consequence of South Africa’s heavy reliance on coal-fired power generation. Mpumalanga is home to the country’s major coal-fired power stations.

About 80% of South Africa's coal is produced in the province and this is having a devastating impact on air quality and food production.

According to Avena Jacklin, senior manager for climate and energy justice at Groundwork, air pollution has a direct impact on food crops, animal feed and livestock.

“Particulate matter settles on plant leaves, inhibiting the plant’s photosynthesis process, its ability to produce a healthy plant and provide adequate nutrition to its consumer,” Jacklin said.

Particulate matter refers to small liquid particles suspended in the air.

“This in turn impacts on people’s and livestock’s health,” she explained.

According to Jacklin the health of livestock is also directly affected by particulate matter and high levels of toxins that are breathed in and ingested through drinking water.

She explained that Jacklin this “results in poor health, reduced resilience and quality of meat that is produced for human consumption.”

Unfortunately, the risks extend to people working the land. They are exposed to particulate matter and toxins that also settles in the soil and water.

The impact of all of this, Jacklin warned, is felt not just by those who live in the affected area but everyone who eats food produced there.

Not getting enough attention

Danie Bester, a maize and soybean farmer from Mpumalanga, agreed with Jacklin and told that on his farm he has noticed some of his maize and soybean plants showing signs of deficiency.

“With time I have noticed that it also occurs on other farms. I then realised that it must the carbon dioxide and gasses that are released. So there’s definitely an impact that air pollution has on plant life,” Bester said.

Farms in the Highveld area, Bester explained, are often faced with challenges of maize crops dying earlier than crops in other parts of the province.

He doesn’t believe that the issue of air pollution and its impact on agriculture is being addressed by authorities.

“I think the problem is big enough for it to get the attention it deserves. Agricultural land is decreasing and mining fields are increasing. As a result the air is becoming more polluted than ever before,” said Bester.

Experts say that the evidence on air pollution having a direct impact on health is clear and that this may be extended to food production and food safety. It is therefore important that resident of Mpumalanga are ensured that they are consuming produce, produced in a clean environment.

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