Michael Nyamute: Management of food crisis is a national security issue

A hungry person is an angry person, so goes the old saying. And, indeed, in the past few months hungry, angry people around the world were rioting over rising food prices. In one instance (Haiti), this has led to the collapse of a government. In another (Egypt), the military has been drafted to ensure that enough bread is baked and distributed to the population.

This demonstrates the critical nature of food in people’s lives. It is a survival and security issue. We should not forget that the issue of scarcity and affordability of ‘bread’ was one of catalysts of the French Revolution of 1789.

The new Government has the challenge of looking into the long-term availability of affordable food. Post-election turmoil has seen the disruption of economic activity, especially in farming areas. This has contributed to an upsurge in the cost of living and pushed many down the poverty ladder.

Lost years

Globally, alarm bells are going off about the looming food shortage and rising prices. World Bank President, Robert Zoellick, last week said the crisis could mean "seven lost years" in the fight against worldwide poverty.

He further pointed out that in some countries, hard-won gains in overcoming poverty may now be reversed. Indeed, one aim of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to reduce by half the proportion of people suffering from hunger by 2015. Currently, estimates indicate that over 800 million people are affected by hunger in developing countries and numbers are not falling quickly enough to achieve the goal, particularly in Africa and Southern Asia.

Hunger is very much linked to poverty and disease, with each contributing to the occurrence of the other two in a vicious cycle. For instance, hunger reduces natural defences against most diseases, which in turn means that sick people are less able to work or produce food.

In addition, people living in poverty often cannot produce or buy enough food to eat and so are more susceptible to disease. In this regard, the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition has concluded that nutrition is an essential foundation for poverty alleviation, and also for meeting MDGs related to improved education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health and disease.

Food scarcity and its result of hunger is, therefore, seen as a major constraint to a country’s immediate and long term economic, social and political development. Food security is also seen as a prerequisite for economic development.

According to the latest policy note from the World Bank on the issue of rising food prices, increases in global wheat prices reached 181 per cent over the 36 months leading up to February, and overall global food prices increased by 83 per cent. Further, the food crop prices are expected to remain high in the foreseeable future.

Many analytical reports on the issue attribute the rising food prices to a complex set of causative factors, the effects of which are bleaker than the theory voiced by Thomas R Malthus, the famous 18th century British economist who warned of the dangers of population growth rates out of sync with the capacity to produce food.

Among these are escalating oil prices, which affect a large part of the farm economy by increasing prices on the production and distribution chain. Concerns over high oil prices, energy security and climate change have also prompted governments (especially in the West) to increase bio-fuel production and use, leading to greater demand for raw materials including: wheat, soy, maize and palm oil.

The 2008 ‘World Development Report: Agriculture for Development’ provides a compelling example of the food-for-fuel debate: over 240kgs of maize — enough to feed one person for a whole year — is required to produce the 100 litres of ethanol needed to fill the gas tank of a modern sports utility vehicle.

The food price hikes are also linked to higher energy and fertilizer prices, a weak dollar and export bans.

Bad harvest

Poor harvests due to extreme weather are another factor. For instance, drought has decimated harvests in major wheat-producing countries as far apart as Australia and Kazakhstan, crimping supplies and creating scarcity. So too is the rise in demand in food-importing countries, where populations and incomes are growing. Expectation of further price increases has also resulted in hoarding driving the prices even higher.

Given this situation, the Government, needs to take a number of measures to ensure Kenya does not find itself at a situation where it may have to depend on food handouts. These include addressing the issue of production costs. The cost of farm inputs has risen, best indicated by increases in fertiliser and fuels. Left unchecked, this could turn out to be the country’s next big crisis of the year.

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