Between 2010 and 2017, the number of undernourished people in Nigeria has more than doubled to 21 million, the biggest jump of any nation in Africa. This means that many Nigerians lack access to nutritious food required for healthy living. Without this food, people starve to death. Moreover, starving people are unproductive people. It is why countries work to ensure that people have access to required food at all times — this is what is known as food security.
Food self-sufficiency, on the other hand, refers to a country’s ability to produce all its food needs without relying on imports. The primary difference between the two is that food security is indifferent about the source, while self-sufficiency only cares about the source.
In 2017, one in four Nigerians was severely food insecure, according to the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In Nigeria, government policies in agriculture have focused more on self-sufficiency than food security. This has not often led to practical policies, such as a ban on rice imports, even though Nigeria does not produce enough rice to feed its population.
Today, no country in the world produces all its food; not even North-Korea, a country which seems to have cut itself from the rest of the world. And the world’s biggest economies—U.S. and China—are the two largest importers of food.
In light of this, the laser-focus on food self-sufficiency—enshrined in targets for rice, tomato paste, and others—is downright bizarre.
Food self-sufficiency or Nothing
In Nigeria, every election cycle comes with fresh promises of agriculture transformation. To be certain, the focus on agriculture is desirable given that it accounts for nearly a quarter of the Nigerian economy and almost half of all jobs. However, the resulting government policy has not worked as intended.
Policymakers focus on promoting agriculture through three measures: input subsidies (such as the provision of fertilizer and seedlings), finance (grants and single-digit loans) and protectionism (import bans and tariffs). The Agricultural Implements and Mechanisation Services (AIMS) and Anchor Borrowers Programme (ABP) are some of the recent programmes providing inputs and loans to farmers.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to capture the impact of these programs. The agriculture sector has grown in recent years and while it continued growing even during Nigeria’s recession, growth has been unimpressive. However, without a reasonable counterfactual, we can never know how the sector would have performed without these programs.
Moreover, it is not that a focus on food self-sufficiency is bad. Indeed, countries in a position to meet their food needs enjoy lots of benefits. Take Qatar, for example. The Arab nation could not import food from its neighbours in the Gulf Cooperation Council after a rift and overcame this by producing more food. An additional benefit is that in a period of currency crisis, food costs do not spike.
However, in Nigeria, the obsession with self-sufficiency has created a situation where food is expensive and scarce. For instance, during the currency crisis that resulted from a slump in oil prices, the CBN classified 41 items as ineligible for foreign currency from official sources. The items included staples such as rice, tomato, and oil palm. As we do not produce enough of these foods, prices rose as imports became more expensive. And while farmers benefitted in the short run, agriculture output has still not grown enough to meet demand.
Food is food — many more ways to skin a cat
Food security is concerned with whether food is available, safe to eat, and stable in supply. And although it is reasonable to believe that food self-sufficiency begets food security, this may not always be the case. In the end, what matters most is access to food for adequate nutrition levels. Malnourished Nigerians do not care if their rice is from Thailand or Kebbi. They only care that it is available, cheap, and safe to eat.
Besides, importing food makes sense. It enables access to cheaper food items that other countries produce more productively, and this would benefit Nigeria which has some of the highest food prices in the world. Food imports can also ensure adequate supply in the event of domestic shortages, like when the tomato Ebola pest decimated Nigeria’s tomato stock. And as climate change puts food supply at risk, imports become even more important.
Productivity necessary for food self-sufficiency
The reality is that we need to start improving the yield of our crops. At the moment, ‘political’ crops such as palm oil, rice, and tomato are better produced elsewhere than in Nigeria. If the government truly wants to improve the production of these crops, it should help farmers to produce them better. Apart from what is being done currently, the government can help farmers to identify crops that fit our climate. Indeed, providing seedlings that are adaptable to ecological conditions in Nigeria is necessary.
To be sure, food self-sufficiency is only one of many routes to achieving food security, albeit a potent one. Self-sufficiency is a means to the end of food security. Until we learn this lesson, and the difference, more Nigerians will starve to death.
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