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Reducing threat of hunger -Punch Editorial

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WithI more mouths to feed than at any other time in its history, Nigeria is anxiously in search of the panacea for the spectre of looming hunger. In acknowledgment of the scary prognosis, President Muhammadu Buhari has already inaugurated the National Food Security Council. The council’s primary assignment ­– the coordination of the diverse attempts to provide food for the citizens without much hassle – is therefore understandable.

For now, Nigeria depends heavily on food imports for its 198 million people. The Central Bank of Nigeria stated in 2016 that Nigeria had an annual food import bill of N630 billion. However, to demonstrate the importance of the NFSC, Buhari chairs its board, with Governor Atiku Bagudu of Kebbi State as his deputy. The harsh reality is that public agencies fail habitually here. For the NFSC to mark out itself, it must hit the ground running.

The previous and the incumbent administrations have made huge strides in the area of domestic rice farming. The CBN’s Anchor Borrowers Programme has rejuvenated rice farming, with Nigeria no longer a major importer of the produce. From importing 664,000 metric tonnes in 2015, coordinated domestic efforts have seen a reduction to 20,000 MT in 2017.

Laudable as the rice project is, there is still a glaring contradiction in the food security system as agriculture contributed 21.18 per cent to GDP in 2016, larger than the manufacturing and the oil sectors combined, according to the CBN. Yet, feeding is still inadequate for many families. In contrast, agriculture provided just 5.5 per cent of the United States’ GDP in 2015, but fetched income of $992 billion, the US Department of Agriculture said.

To the government’s credit, fertiliser is more accessible to farmers. Yet, several problems persist, not least a mishmash of poor policies, oil rent and rural-urban migration. The Lake Chad, formerly a rich source of food, livestock and agro-commerce, is depleted of its main natural resource: water. Consequently, this loss has jeopardised the livelihood of 45 million farmers, herdsmen and fishermen in the Lake Chad Basin Commission area.

For the past nine years, farming has suffered a huge setback in the North-East region, where the lake is located. Farmers have also been displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency. An area that used to produce grains, beef, fish and fruits in abundance is lying fallow with the terrorists in control of a part of the region.

Apart from Islamist insurgency, the Fulani herdsmen carnage has decimated the ranks of farming communities in the North-Central zone. The region is reputed as the country’s main food production area. Benue, one of its states, goes by the sobriquet, “Food Basket of the Nation.” It is famous for the production of yam, rice, potato and other food crops. But farmers have fled 12 of the state’s 23 local government areas because of the herdsmen atrocities. The Benue State Government said in February that food production would “likely drop by 40 per cent this year as a result of constant herdsmen attacks on farmers.” The North-West and the South are afflicted by different security challenges.

Although Nigeria produces tomato, pepper, onions and fruits in abundance, getting them to the urban centres is a nightmare, principally because of post-harvest losses, the terrible rural transportation infrastructure and logistics. Data from the Ministry of Trade and Investment says Nigeria currently produces 1.8 metric tonnes of tomato per annum, but needs 2.45 MTPA. Thus, it imports tomato concentrates worth $175 million a year to augment the shortfall. Several other perishable items waste away in similar circumstances.

Kidnappers and oil militants have sent fishermen away from Southern communities. Some of those communities were initially polluted by oil spills. To supplement the deficit, Nigeria imports fish worth $700 million annually, Audu Ogbeh, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, said in 2016. In spite of a ban by the Federal Government, smuggled frozen poultry products flood the country, costing it about N500 billion per annum, according to the Poultry Association of Nigeria.

To reduce the threat of hunger, Nigeria has a lot of work to do. With an annual investment of $2 billion, Brazil launched its upward trajectory of “Zero Hunger” programme in 2003. It worked. Experts say genetic research could offer new ways of resisting crop pests and disease; agricultural science could deliver new ways of enriching soil and enhancing yields; better education could encourage more careful preservation and use of resources. Another approach is for LGAs and state governments to construct rural roads, eliminate the chain of bribes being paid to the security agents at checkpoints and encourage private sector-led initiatives to establish agro-processing factories. Storage silos to accommodate the excess during the peak season are imperative, while efforts by the Federal Government and its partners to redeem the Lake Chad should be given priority.

The ABP should be extended to other food crops, particularly yam, grains, cassava, vegetables, beans, tomato, pepper, palm oil processing and fruits. More endeavours and synergy are needed in research, improved seedlings and fertiliser access for farmers. LGAs and state governments should unveil policies to encourage poultry farmers, while the Nigeria Customs Service should clamp down on smuggling of frozen poultry products.

Insecurity is the biggest trouble point. It prevents smallholding farmers from cultivation; it is also a disincentive to major local and international investors. The Federal Government should stop burying its head in the sand about the Fulani herdsmen terrorism. Also, ranching has to be adopted. Single interest loans should be made available to the cattle farmers to bring this policy to reality.

The price we are paying for the Boko Haram insurgency is heavy. A radical formula ought to be implemented to end the carnage. This will enable the displaced farmers to return to their farmland. All other forms of insecurity should be decisively tackled.

Punch

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