Feed the Hungry and Think Ahead – By Andrew Othieno Rwigyema
Kigali, Rwanda, September 2011
“Feed the Hungry” has become a household theme not only for international development practitioners, but also for charitable institutions and human rights organizations. The global food crisis has indeed become a loud cry for all aspects of the world’s attention. Since 2006 prices of major food crops such as wheat, rice, corn, and soy beans have undergone severe upward fluctuations. These price rises are threatening hunger, mass-starvation, and deep poverty for millions across the globe.
This year (June, 2011) Oxfam reported that within the next 15 – 20 years the price of staple foods will be twice as much, and this could lead to an unparalleled setback in overall human development. It was also noted that the hardest hit will be LDCs where people spend a significant portion of their income on nutritional sustenance. It was also made clear that the world is entering an era of what could possibly be a permanent food crisis, which is likely to be accompanied by political unrest and will require radical reform of the international food system. According to their statistics, research projections show that international prices of staples such as maize could rise by as much as 180% by 2030, with half of that rise due to the impacts of climate change. The resolute conclusion is that the number of hungry people around the world is rapidly increasing as demand outpaces food production.
Jeffrey Sachs, one of the world’s foremost economists, put it bluntly by pointing out that the root cause of this problem is the fact that world leaders failed to think ahead. He stated that we will have to start thinking and acting globally. I fully agree with him, but looking at this food-oriented problem from an African perspective; I think we – Africans – should, in the short-term, start acting regionally prior to lobbying, in the long-term, for fusion into a global food drive that is geared towards averting the problem.
From an all-inclusive perspective, however, prior to efficiently mapping out long-term strategies through which key policy options will be established it is necessary not only to clearly understand the primary causes of this debacle, but also to recognize the stark reality of its impact on global citizens, especially the most vulnerable. An outline of these causes, how they have had an impact thus far, and key policy options to prevent it from happening will be briefly outlined below.
Low productivity of farmers in poor countries has been one of the primary causes – the looming energy crisis is closely related to the issue at hand. A simultaneous increase in oil prices has hampered the ability of famers in poor countries to purchase much-needed amenities such as fertilizer, transportation, and irrigation.
A high increase in the global population has inevitably created a conflict between market forces of increasing demand, and decreasing supply from the food system. It has been predicted that Africa’s population will more than double by 2050, which could invoke an enormous catastrophe for the African continent as a whole.
Climate change has also been highlighted not only as one of the causes, but also an impending global crisis in itself that should be deciphered well-before it hits the fan. Drought in several major grain-exporting economies such as Australia also decreased production within a very short period of time.
Both the US and the EU have adopted trade policies through which domestic grain-producing companies are subsidized to convert grain into ethanol. Trends have clearly shown that this subsidization policy has created unfair competition and adverse proclivities on the market. Martin Wolf (also a Senior Economist on the world stage) makes a fair conclusion by pointing out that rich countries are penalizing poor net-importing countries by encouraging, or even forcing their farmers to grow oil instead of food.
The major impact of the current food crisis has been social unrest. This trend could lead to political instability and have long-term effects for nations that are still fragile economies. In the recent past there have been riots in Africa (Burkina Faso and Egypt), and in Asia (Bangladesh, and the Philippines). Should this unrest spread, overtime it could gain momentum towards highly volatile levels that will eventually undermine and reverse large-scale economic growth.
Soaring oil prices are also closely interlinked to this unrest, because they are hampering basic livelihoods within nations that are mainly agro-based economies.
Policy options that create foundations for change can be addressed from three vantage points; (i) humanitarian aid, (ii) trade policy interventions, and (iii) long-term productivity. However, by addressing this issue from the humanitarian vantage point; simply providing aid by increasing funding to organizations such as WFP to feed those who have been hardest hit will obviously be well-intentioned, but in the long-term it will NOT solve the problem
One of the long-term policy options is to encourage investment in agriculture. Training and empowering farmers in the third world should be prioritized. Sensitization on how to not only “˜initiate’ and “˜implement’, but also “˜evaluate’ and “˜sustain’ more efficient farming methods will expand long-run supply. This could also provide the much-needed resources for agro-based research, which will eventually encourage developing nations to move towards genetically modified agro-produce, and utilize what is currently unused yet potentially productive land. Developing nations should also be offered assistance to decipher not just national but also regional economic strategies that will harness more cooperation, and reduce unnecessary competition.
A global population that is currently mushrooming out of control cannot be ignored. African countries should be encouraged to adapt national policy agendas that increasingly address family planning and encourage girls’ education. They should also be encouraged to integrate more rapidly towards mutually agreeable agro-based solutions and initiatives. This will curb the threat of an even larger percentage increase, and ensure multilaterally protected food security in future.
Trade policy intervention strategies that will urge rich nations to reconsider bio-fuel subsidization programmes should also be enforced. This will increase supply, and create a level playing field for farmers worldwide. In the same vein, it will also be necessary to look into the looming energy crisis and, while doing so, enact a global climate policy.
Ultimately, the food and energy crises have become a confluence of unfavorable events. It would be wise to find ways to reduce green house emissions, and all its adverse effects, well before the “˜time-bomb’ explodes. Sachs put it well by stating that we urgently need to weatherproof the world’s crops as soon and as effectively as possible.
It is worth highlighting the fact that no other continent in the world has more fertile, more extensive, and more fallow yet cultivable land than Africa. Therefore, what may seem to be a looming crisis for the world could indeed – paradoxically – be an economic opportunity for Africa.However, for African countries to strategically seize this opportunity (should it, fortunately or unfortunately, come around) will require that they jointly and purposefully amalgamate their national agricultural policies, and start thinking ahead from concrete regional perspectives.
A brief regionally-oriented case study could be the East African Community (EAC), which comprises five states – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. In its most recent newsletter (“˜The Community,’ July, 2011) it is clearly stated that the EAC recognizes the fact that it is a region endowed with the potential to produce sufficient food to feed itself, yet the region is frequently affected by food shortages and pockets of hunger as presently depicted by the current crisis in Kenya. The EAC region is adequately endowed not only to appropriately feed its own, but also to salvage those in need (within the region), and even export food surpluses to world markets. It is unfortunate that in the last 25 years Kenya has experienced recurrent drought especially in the marginalised areas commonly known as the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs). The situation in Kenya has been seriously exacerbated by increasing fuel and food prices, which have left the Kenyan government with no other option but to declare the drought a national emergency (announced May 30th, 2011).
Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) report that the 2011 rise in food prices is affecting poor people not just in the ASAL areas, but also in slum areas of Nairobi such as Mukuru where people have inevitably resorted to skipping meals, and and lower quality food to cope. Technically, East Africa is a region that should be abundantly endowed with surplus food reserves, but considering current trends; what could have initially been an opportunity is slowly but surely manifesting itself as a challenge.
All five EAC member states have taken the regional vantage point to reverse this situation by enacting the EAC Food Security Action Plan (2011-2015) and endorsing the EAC Climate Change Policy, through which the region as a whole is set to embark on a number of priority interventions that are ultimately expected to improve food availability, facilitate access, and ensure stability of supply to the best extent possible. The EAC “˜Action Plan’ outlines strategies to increase food availability in sufficient quantity and quality by increasing crop, livestock, and fisheries productivity not just by improving technology using inputs that are adaptive to climate change impacts, but also by scaling up the efficient use of water for agricultural production.
It is reported that the “˜Action Plan’ is estimated to cost $43 billion over a five-year period, and will be implemented by Partner States’ Ministries responsible for Agriculture, Food Security, and respective sector Ministries, while the EAC Secretariat will co-ordinate the implementation of joint programmes. The plan will be implemented in tandem with EAC’s “˜Climate Change Policy,’ which is being put into effect by the recognition that food insecurity is likely to be exacerbated by climate change.
The EAC and member states’ intentions, through this plan, is to enhance its intra-regional trade-share in the food products market from the current 10% to 30% by 2015, while also strategically improving the utilization of non-conventional sources of food supply that stem from crop, livestock, fisheries, and forestry systems. With an “˜umbrella’ over the region as a whole, the plan also proposes an improvement of capacity for emergency preparedness and adaptation to climate change impacts in order to improve access and stability of food supply while simultaneously enhancing nutrition and food safety.
It is from well-concerted regional perspectives such as these that African countries will be able to feed their hungry, plan for the future, neutralize social unrest before it occurs, and counter “˜misguided’ policies arising from elsewhere. This can happen only if these multilateral arrangements are properly “˜initiated’ with all the political-will necessary; “˜implemented’ with the right strategies; constantly “˜monitored and evaluated’ with apt technical skill; and “˜sustained’ with the aptitude required to ensure long-term sustainability. On a much lighter note, and from a peripheral political perspective on this issue, one cannot help but bring to the fore the fact that the notion of the nation-state in Africa is old and outdated! There are still many crises looming on the horizon, and Africa’s safest bet is the protective sanctuary and economic reassurance that is offered and guaranteed by combined regional strength.
Summarily, in comparison to middle income and advanced economies, irrespective of the fact that the African continent has the most fertile land, African countries would be hardest hit by an enormous food crisis, and – even more so – their recuperation from such an injury would be a painstakingly more arduous if not almost impossible task. Therefore, even as they labor to feed the hungry based on lessons learned from yesterday, African countries should – in close collaboration with each other (as currently illustrated by the EAC) – go the extra mile, work overtime to strategically think – today – about tomorrow, and jointly lay solid foundations upon which they will be able to raise their safeguards in a well-timed manner – for quick response and quick recovery – so as to turn a situation that could potentially be an environmental crisis into an economic opportunity.