Hunger, anger and strategic food security

By Casmir Igbokwe


Published: Sunday, 25 May 2008

Many Nigerians are already familiar with the story of Kola and Seyi Woniye. This couple in Oyo State reportedly attempted to sell their five- and three-year-old sons a few months ago. The British undercover journalist, who posed as the buyer, revealed that the price tag on the boys was N1m (N500,000 each). Recall also that a Nigerian woman purportedly sold her twin children for N120,000 recently. Every year, hundreds of children in Nigeria fall victim to this kind of situation. Some are reported. The majority of the cases go unreported.

The question is: What can push a mother to ever consider selling her child? The answer lies in the fact that most Nigerians are heavily indebted to poverty. And to recover this debt, poverty has taken food off many tables. By the estimation of the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, 65 per cent of Nigerians do not have food security. This entails insufficient access to the amount and variety of food that makes for a healthy and productive life. The ministry also puts the number of stunted children under five at about 40 per cent. Besides, Nigeria ranked 20th in the 2006 Global Hunger Index. I suspect that these statistics are grossly underestimated.

To worsen matters, food crisis suddenly surfaced in different parts of the world since December last year. In Nigeria, for instance, the price of rice jumped from about N5,000 to about N10,000. A bag of beans goes for about N7,000 as against the former price of about N4,500. The price of a bag of wheat also went up to about N10,000 from the initial price of about N7,000. The World Bank had warned that food crop prices would remain high in 2008 and 2009.

One major cause of the global food crisis is the conversion of food crops into bio-fuels. What this means is that countries searching for clean and cheap fuels are converting such crops as wheat, soybeans and corn into fuel. This has caused undue scarcity of essential food items. And due to the shortages experienced in the world, two leading producers of rice, Thailand and India, put restrictions on the exportation of the staple.

The food crisis has caused riots in such countries as Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Mali. In Nigeria, some housewives have also staged their own ”riots” against their husbands. Feeding money is no longer enough and most women want an increase in their feeding allowances. Some hoodlums now steal cell phones and other valuables just to survive and make ends meet.

As part of efforts to mitigate the food crisis, the Federal Government resorted to releasing grains from the strategic grain reserves. The Federal Capital Territory, for instance, reportedly got about 30 trucks of grains with 50 per cent subsidy. The FG also suspended all levies and duties on rice imports for a period of six months; established a N10bn credit facility from the Rice Levy Account to support local rice processing; and plans to increase the capacity of the National Strategic Food Reserve from 300, 000 metric tonnes to 600, 000 metric tonnes.

These efforts are laudable. But they are not enough. Media reports last week indicated that the Food and Agricultural Organisation‘s recommendation was that every country should have reserves of 20kg per person for three months at any point in time. What this means, experts say, is that Nigeria should always have a minimum of 2.8m tonnes in its reserves. But it currently has only about 10 per cent of the FAO recommendation. Prof. Yomi Omotesho of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Ilorin, reportedly doubted the ability of the country to even store grains up to the limited capacity of its reserves. Perceptive governments elsewhere, Omotesho noted, were further boosting their already sumptuous reserves. Even a poor country like Zimbabwe is said to have strategic reserves of five million tonnes.

As a matter of urgency, the Federal Government should raise our grain reserves to, at least, meet international standard. Besides, waiving duties on rice importation for six months may not solve the problem. The permanent solution is to boost local production. The first step towards this is to build feeder roads and develop other infrastructure that will aid agricultural production. If the government was ready to stake N80bn for rice importation as initially announced but later jettisoned, I believe it could go beyond the N10bn credit facility it earmarked for farmers.

We can toy with many things. But we should not toy with food security. If there was food on the table of the Woniyes, I don‘t think they would have ever contemplated selling their children. I hope the situation does not get to the point where we also have to sell our wives to survive.


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