Wednesday, May 21, 2008


THE issue of not having enough food to feed hungry mouths around the world is as old as humanity. From antiquity, we have stories of the fore bearers of the modern man wandering about hunting and gathering food. It was the quest for food that led man to sedentary life in an attempt to cultivate the ground and produce more food. The idea of food security, which is used loosely today was started in antiquity to guard against famine and starvation. The ancient man demonstrated great wisdom in the way he responded to food scarcity. He settled down to cultivate and produce more food, which was a sharp departure from wandering that clearly did not satisfy his hunger. There is food in the ground when it is cultivated.There are graphic tales in the Scriptures of one famine after another hitting the world. The patriarch Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and his eleven sons and their families were forced to leave Hebron in Canaan to Egypt around 1750 BC because of extensive famine around the world. Prior to their arrival, Joseph, one of his twelve sons was already positioned in Egypt as Pharaoh's chief food administrator, having earlier been sold there as slave by his brothers. That family migration caused by famine marked a turning point in the history of Israel as a nation.Incidentally, the famine that forced Jacob and his sons to migrate to Egypt was predicted seven years earlier. Seven years of bumper harvest was followed by another seven years of severe famine. The Egyptian Pharaoh, acting on the wise advice of the slave boy Joseph built store houses and stocked enough food that would last for seven years, and even more than enough to sell to other nations. That again, was a wise response to combat famine. It is important to note that what was stored came from bumper harvests consequent upon aggressive cultivation over a preceding period.During the days of the Hebrew prophet Elisha around 913 BC, severe famine hit Samaria following a siege by king Ben-Hadad of Syria against Israel. The famine was so severe that women boiled their children and ate as recorded in 2 Kings 6: 28. Josephus, the great historian also recounts the terrible starvation that came upon the land of Judah and Jerusalem in 70 AD when the Roman armies under General Titus besieged Jerusalem and finally destroyed it. The famine was so severe that men resorted to eating leather, grass and hay and in one instance, a mother even roasted and ate her son.History shows that virtually every generation in medieval Europe experienced famine. In such situations, the poor suffered most. According to one report, periods of extreme food scarcity and hunger drove some citizens to cannibalism in parts of Europe.At the end of World War II, increased food production in many parts of the world raised hope of the conquest of hunger. For instance, bumper harvest in the United States created food surpluses that could be relied upon. Furthermore, the development of improved seed stock raised the hope of better harvests especially in the poor densely populated countries. The magic wand in this regard lies in nations embarking in both intensive and extensive food production. A neglect of agriculture would spell doom for many poor countries of the world, particularly in Africa.It is regrettable that the optimism of bumper harvests expected from the development of improved food crops has almost faded away. Today in many countries, particularly in Africa, famine and starvation are ravaging many populations. Statistics show that the populations of at least 40 poor countries, which in absolute terms runs into millions face severe hunger and starvation. This is worsened by a sharp decline in global food production. This has raised fears of a possibility of a widespread famine. The harvest this year reports say, has been particularly disappointing falling far short of meeting demands.According to reports, this year's harvest has fallen a record 22-year low, which is equal to about 26-day supply compared with a 95-day supply in 1961. The low harvest and accompanying high prices have impacted negatively on food aid from the traditional surplus-producing nations. For instance, the United States, which is one of the surplus-producing nations, may be constrained to reduce its food aid this year by about 50 per cent unless she adopts an expanded food production programme. The other nations in this category are restricting sales of food. Already, Argentina, Thailand, Brazil, and other Common Market nations have placed restrictions on grain exports. That means none food producer nations who may have the capacity to import would be disappointed thereby leaving their populations in biting hunger and starvation.Historically, low harvest is the principal cause of famine. Low harvest could be due to natural and man-made causes. Low Nile rising was the main cause of low harvest in ancient Egypt. In many other times and places the vagaries of weather cause crop failure. This calls to mind the incidence of drought due to absence of rainfall especially for rain fed crops. Severe weather incidents could induce crop failure. The recent Cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar (Burma) devastated the Irrawaddy delta with its expansive rice fields. Myanmar is among the grain surplus-producing nations. The cyclone incident would certainly reduce its contribution to global food stock this year.Apart from natural forces, the prevalence of war in many parts of the world has aggravated low agricultural output. In Africa, for instance, unending wars and political instability coupled with wrong-headed government policies have reduced the capacity of many countries to feed themselves. Consequently, nations that should naturally feed themselves and also contribute to global food stock have turned to food aid or massive food importation. These ad-hoc measures never provided any solution.There is also the politics behind the food crisis. The U.S. had charged that increased consumption in countries like India is responsible for the food crisis. This is difficult to sustain because if there is no drastic shortfall in global food harvest, increased consumption in one country alone could not spike global crisis. On its part, India charged the U.S. of aggravating the food crisis through its subsidy on biofuel production. This line of argument contends that much of the land that was being used to produce food is now dedicated to producing inputs for these fuels. Like the preceding argument, biofuel production alone can hardly cause widespread food shortages around the world if there are no wars and if the weather remains clement. Biofuel encourages investment in expansive agriculture, which is a plus in increased food production whether it is used for food or as industrial raw material.The rising prices of crude oil in the world market have also been blamed for the crisis. Perhaps, with the exception of the United States, most of the oil producing nations are not the major food surplus producers. The oil producing countries that are reaping from the skyrocketing oil prices are mostly in Africa and the Middle East. Political crisis and instability are rife in these regions. The question is to what extent would the food producers that are paying heavily for oil sell their foods at cheap price to the oil producers? Would they lose at both ends? What if under the principle of comparative advantage the food producers in turn hike the prices of food as a way of counter balancing what they are spending on oil? This seems more plausible. Whatever is the reason behind the current food crisis, what matters is how nations respond to it. On this note, how Nigeria responds to the crisis is of critical importance. According to reports, the Federal Government last week took some interventionist measures to tackle the global food crisis as it affects Nigeria. These include approval of N80 billion for rice importation, release of 11,000 metric tonnes of grain from the strategic reserves and the suspension of import duties on rice for six months. There is glaringly no measure to boost local food production.These measures truly speaking can hardly provide solution to the food crisis. By releasing N80 billion for rice importation and relaxing import duties on rice just because the country has the money it sold from oil, the food producers would take back what they have spent in buying Nigeria's oil. This is assuming that they relaxed their restrictions on exports. If they don't, we have no place to buy the rice even with our money. The only solution is boosting local food production.The solution to famine from history is increased food production. Nigeria's land is 99 per cent arable. Rice is not the main staple food among Nigeria's over 140 million people. Other grains and tubers are. Since the current food shortage is predicted to last the next four years or more, government should desist from the old mistakes of mass rice importation that ends up undoing the government through corruption.

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