Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Strategising for food security

AMID the furore generated by the rising cost of food in Nigeria and globally, the Federal Government had reacted spontaneously with some measures to tackle the problem as it affects Nigeria. These measures, among other things, include the release of 11,000 metric tonnes of grain from the National Food Strategic Reserves and the suspension of import duties on rice for six months. Initially, there had been no expression of commitment from government towards boosting local food production and supply. Perhaps, the reaction against rice importation in favour of local production is what has now forced government to re-assess its earlier measures to include how to address the challenge of food security.

To this end, the Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources, Dr. Sayydi Ruma, the other day in Abuja disclosed that the Federal Government has concluded plans to float a N200 billion bond through the Debt Management Office (DMO) to boost agriculture in the country. According to the Minister, government will fund the bond with funds sourced from operational surpluses of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the National Pension Commission and telecommunication funds.

He added that funding arrangement for the bond includes credit for small-scale farmers, which will be funded by the state governments with 20 per cent matching grants from the Federal Government and delivered through micro-finance institutions to eligible farmers. All of these proposals now form part of a comprehensive National Food Programme for Food Security which was published by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources last month.

In the document the Ministry identifies the Federal Government's policy thrusts as import substitution, substantial food security, promotion of modern agricultural practices, and natural resources conservation. Short term, medium term and long term strategies are further outlined, with emphasis on the role of the states and the private sector and the overall vision being "to ensure sustainable access, availability and affordability of quality food to Nigerians and to be a significant net provider of food to the global community."

This sounds attractive as an objective, but the challenge of most official efforts has not been problem-definition; rather it is the will to focus on the right priorities and ensure careful implementation of expressed action plans and targets. Nigeria has 148 million mouths to feed (according to UN estimates for 2007). The issue of agricultural productivity and food security is not something that government can afford to toy with. Serious and systematic intervention is required.

Unfortunately, agriculture has been abandoned since the mid-70s in preference for crude oil sales. A reactive action map quickly put together by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources may not be enough; it is pertinent to ask what the country's agricultural policy is? Ideally, such a policy would include strategies to produce enough food, storage of grains in reserves to ensure food security and provide safeguards against crisis. As a matter of fact, the country has no food reserves in the real sense of the word. There is no real effort to feed Nigerians in the event of a crisis and this is the crux of the matter. The 11,000 metric tonnes of grains reportedly released by government is a drop in the ocean. How many people would that feed and for how long?

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recommendation is that every country should have reserves of 20 kilogrammes of grains per person for three months at any time. What this means is that Nigeria with about 148 million people should have 2.96 billion metric tonnes of grains in its strategic reserves at any point in time. But reports indicate that all the country's silos at present have a capacity for only 300,000 metric tonnes. This is grossly inadequate even if the silos are filled to capacity.

It is not even known what quantity of food is actually in the reserves. There is need for the country to reawaken and embark on a sustained programme of food supply at all levels. Nigeria is blessed with abundant arable land that is lying waste and uncultivated. Food production plan should be diversified to cover other varieties of crops and not only rice and cassava. The proposed National Programme for Food Security seeks to place emphasis on 13 crops. It is good also, that government is thinking of floating bonds to boost food production, with plans to focus on large scale farming, medium scale farming and small scale farming. Even at that, there are some fundamental problems that should be ironed out.

There is, for instance, no database of farmers in the country. How did government arrive at the figure of N200 billion bonds? What are we expecting in real terms? And how do we know who the real farmers are? This is crucial to avoid diverting scarce resources to emergency farmers who are only out to exploit the situation. One way of dealing with this problem is to work through the agric cooperatives. In the past, government used this framework to reach the farmers and address their needs. Through the cooperatives, it may be easier to ensure control and close monitoring of the farmers.

Nigerian farmers are highly segregated with each person or group working independent of others. There is no established structure by which government can take account of what is produced. This is a serious error. The issue of food storage and processing should also be taken seriously. Farmers produce large quantities of food that are wasted because there is no proper storage, processing or preservation.

There is also the problem of access to land. The Land Use Act hinders access to land for commercial, large-scale farming. The Act should be reviewed to provide more enabling opportunities under the food productivity framework. The country must also decide what quantity of food it plans to produce on an annual basis, and how many hectares of land would be cultivated. Then, there should be a mechanism to assess performance. Doing all this and getting positive result requires serious planning on the part of government working in concert with farmers at all levels.