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Famine, Nigeria and global food crisis

By Dele Sobowale

“No man can get wise on an empty stomach.” George Eliot, I8I9-I880. (VANGUARD BOOK OF UOTATIONS p 274).

To this, Napoleon Bonaparte, I769-I82, added, “An army marches on its stomach”. Either as civilians or as uniformed men and women, Nigerians are heading for the worst food crisis in over hundred years. Few people alive in this country today  have never experienced such deprivation as is now becoming increasingly imminent; not only in Nigeria, but globally as well.

Natural disasters, arising out of two gifts of God to man – water and sun – now threaten mankind on a scale, perhaps unprecedented since the ice age. Let me summarise the worldwide predicament – for those who have either ignored international news broadcasts or/and those who have failed to grasp their significance.

“China’s food problems will soon become a global food crisis”, warned the Worldwatch Institute, an NGO based in Washington D.C, in the I990s. At the time, China was not the world’s second largest economy and its ability to pay for large food imports were in doubt. Today, China is the second largest economy and its ability to pay for any amount of food is no longer in doubt.

The government of China will soon be shopping for food –worldwide – to feed I.3 billion people. Nigeria’s cassava will be one of the targets. The poor people of Nigeria cannot compete with the newly rich of China. If care is not taken, a few cassava exporters will, for their own benefit, send hundreds of thousands to their graves as serious famine takes hold.

“All life is water” , wrote Thales,640-546 B.C, the Greek philosopher; and since mankind developed the skill of organized farming, water has played a prominent role. It was not by coincidence that planned agriculture started around the world’s rivers before moving upland and even into deserts.

…Yam tubers and yam plantation

Without adequate supplies of water, civilization, as we know it would have been impossible. With increasing population, mankind, more than ever, depends on water provided mostly by rivers and rainfall. Farmers, worldwide, have, for centuries planned their cultivation programmes around the, formerly, predictable rainy season.

Each year, the season brought formerly predictable volumes of water for planting at predictable periods. Too little water accounts for lower yields and food supply. Abundant water generally meant increased harvests; but excessive water results in inundation of farmlands and crop losses. Optimum yield is achieved when a balance is achieved. That balance has been, and may remain, forever, out of human

Today, all over the world, on account of climate change, about which scientists have issued warnings for decades, neither season nor volume of water is predictable anymore. The level of rainfall, this year, might be the highest in several hundred years in some countries. Some nations are experiencing unprecedented volumes of rainfall resulting in massive crop losses. China, the world’s most populated nation, with I.3 billion people to feed, is one of them. But, it is not the only one.

Nigeria, with an estimated population of I67 million people is also experiencing flooding and farm inundation in the northern part of the country, which account for close to 75 per cent of food production. Adamawa, Plateau and Niger states have been particularly hard hit. Adamawa, in particular, has suffered a double tragedy.

In addition to unprecedented high downpour, swelling the banks of the Benue River, farmers in the state have also been wiped out by flood caused by the release of water from a dam in Cameroun. Granted, the dam would have collapsed, anyway, if the water was not released, still, it exacerbated the calamity in the state. Certainly, Adamawa, Plateau and Niger will contribute less to the national food production this year than in 20II.

The same might be true of a lot of northern states and some southern states depending on major rivers for food production. But, globally, close to I2.5 per cent reduction in yield is expected this year. Yet, Nigeria is still an import dependent nation with respect to food. We expect to import food from nations struggling to feed their own people.

The sun, as any old school boy knows from our Nature Study, which is no longer taught in primary schools, is not up there just to demarcate day from night. It is a vital component of the agricultural programme as it promotes photosynthesis aiding plant growth and food production. It becomes indispensable at harvest time for fruit production especially. Too short a dry season results in lower yields and too long also reduces output of farm products.

However, there is another dimension to the input of the sun – heat. Plants need the sun, especially for heat, but too much heat, if prolonged, leads to drought and crop failures. Until a few weeks ago, the United States of America, the world’s largest food producer and exporter, had been experiencing low rainfall and excessive heat in what is called its “corn belt” – the Mid-West – which feeds America and the world. Wheat, corn, soya beans have shriveled on farms on account of drought. The same is true of parts of Canada, Spain and some states of Nigeria.

Already, a sharp rise in the price of food is predicted for the US as well as for the rest of the world on account of the American experience alone. It is not just crops that will suffer price increases, prices of processed food items and animal feeds will also escalate. Whether imported or bred locally, livestock prices will jump dramatically everywhere on account of the combination of crop failures globally and drought in the US in particular.

The Outlook for Nigeria
Nigeria has been most unfortunate this year – our misfortune has only been mitigated by the fact that total drought has eluded us, but we have had a combination of flood in the north and insufficient rain in the south. The most dependable barometer of food production has always been vegetables.

Usually, from May to September, there has been an abundance of vegetables in the south. That was because the rains started slowly in February/March; increase in intensity through April to June; and peak in July.

The “August break” then follows. September and October rains round up the wet season before the sun takes over. This year, we have experienced one long “break” since the third week of June. There has been little rainfall. Crops have suffered, vegetables most of all. Given a bleak July for vegetables, it is clear that the rest of the year is a write off.

Nigeria has now been listed among the ten countries most at risk of famine this year and the next.  Unfortunately, the calamity brought by nature has been compounded by government policy.

Two months ago, the Federal government of Nigeria announced an increase in import duty for wheat –from 35% to 65% — in a bid to encourage the shift from wheat bread to cassava bread. Even the government and the Minister of Agriculture, who aggressively promotes this initiative, know that the aggregate output of cassava, at the moment, is insufficient to support a massive shift from wheat to cassava for bread.

But, it is expected that the incremental demand for cassava will stimulate more production. That, in theory, would have been the result in another year or period. As I predicted, earlier in the year, the most likely, short and medium terms, repercussion will be increases in prices of bread and other wheat based products while the anticipated cassava output will take years to materialize.

Last week, the price of bread went up by about 30%; and the price of gari went after it. It will be years before enough cassava will be grown to bring the price down.

Meanwhile, between now and the next planting season, whose success is not guaranteed on account of climate change again, Nigeria faces imported inflation as the prices if rice, wheat, soybeans, maize, etc, head for roof. The Federal and state governments will need to hold an emergency meeting to discuss how to reduce the impact of higher food prices caused by flooding, mini-drought and imported inflation.


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