Africa must produce its own food or risk exposing its people to global price hikes

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Many developing countries easily evaded the global financial crisis because their economies are cash rather than credit based.

But according to recently launched World Disaster Report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the world’s poorest countries and their people are at serious risk from rocketing food prices and volatile global markets.

The report predicts that a new round of food inflation and severe hikes in the price of basic foodstuffs such as rice, maize, wheat, oil, sugar and salt is plunging many of the world’s poorest people, including millions across the world especially in Southern Africa and the Horn of Africa, into deeper poverty and into situations of severe hunger and malnourishment.

Almost one billion people worldwide go to bed hungry every night, even though the world produces enough to feed everyone. Hunger and malnutrition slow down development and increase the burden on millions of families in developing countries. It also weakens people’s capacity to produce or access affordable food and general potential as human beings. Malnutrition causes life-long losses in cognitive capacity and increases adult health problems, adding extra burden on the already ailing economies of the developing countries.

What is startling about the findings is that the main causes of the hunger and malnutrition is not largely droughts, but lack of a global food system that enables everyone to be food secure. Among the reasons include lack of farming technology and proper land use, climate change, growing competition for land and water and increasing levels of inequality.

Speculative commodity trading, rapidly growing populations especially in China and India and a sharp decrease in domestic agricultural production due to lack of appropriate investment and ineffective governance, are just some of the leading causes fuelling a new round of food inflation, concludes the report.

Speculative tendencies by big western food traders are cited as among the reasons the world is facing food inflation against food production.

It is believed that these food traders buy food from the Western farmers ahead of time with limited exposure to price movements at cheap prices which the trader stores in anticipation for high prices.

It makes commercial sense, though for farmers to deal that way as food traders act as insurance for their farming business, but it exposes poor families in the developing countries who typically spend between 50 and 80% of their incomes on food.

This has been propelled by the recent bursting of the US property bubble which has led to a surge in global investors seeking new opportunities in the food-commodity futures.

Global financial and trade speculations have a dangerous impact on food prices as food stocks are often bought up by traders and stored away in depots and warehouses waiting for high profits. It’s unacceptable that a trader in London or New York can determine whether or not a father in a country like Zimbabwe can afford to feed his family.

According to The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the price of a 90kg bag of maize, the main food source for most Kenyans, jumped from about $16 in June 2010 to about $44 in July 2011 — an increase of 160%. Sugar prices increased by 19,43% between June 2011 and last month.

More investment in agriculture is essential, but the report questions whether this investment should target smallholders and pastoralists or encourage capital-intensive and large-scale farming. There is increasingly widespread agreement that smallholder farming could be the best way forward in Africa.

The Malawi Green belt project is a shining example. It has moved Malawi from a food net-importer to a regional exporter, achieving a high rate of agricultural production and food security at national level, but also at household levels which include 85% of its rural population.

It also credited for transforming Malawi’s economy based on, among others, the prioritisation of agriculture and food security to increase self-sufficiency, prioritisation of irrigation and water development to reduce dependence on rain-fed agriculture.

Perhaps, it is time we stopped politicising land and realise that for every game we play with land, we are paying and enriching Western food traders and farming companies, while weakening our people’s ability to produce and play an active part in the development of our country.

Eventually we subject our people to food aid which the report views as increasingly disempowering and intrusive. More often than not, the same food aid comes from the food traders who are blamed for food price hikes.

The Malawi example demonstrates that with government investment in agriculture, small scale farmers can provide a helping hand to national food security.

It is not just food that is becoming expensive, the price of new technologies, seeds, fertilizers and fuel needed to transport food is also going up. There is need to boost the agricultural sector as a way of protecting people who find themselves at the mercy of inflation and the global stock markets.

Negligence of such an important part of human life may not only fuel growing fears that the rise in food prices could reach a violent tipping point and become a dangerous source of instability in many countries. Hunger and malnutrition will persist if we do not undertake systematic changes beyond technology.

They will persist as long as those with the power to tackle poverty refuse to change or until the hungry have the power to make them do so. The Middle East and North Africa riots were to a large extent fuelled, amongst other factors, by an increase in the price of food and general cost of living.