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February 22, 2019

‘Food security’ masks real issue

Food security
Food security

Every so often, French farmers invade the orderly streets of Paris to demonstrate against their government’s agriculture policies.

They line up hundreds of tractors to block traffic. Or they drive large herds of sheep (or dump tonnes of manure) onto some street selected for its symbolic value.

This sometimes ends with the kind of street battles between police and protestors which we have somewhat grown used to now here in Nairobi, ever since the disputed presidential election of August 8, 2017. Only of course, the French police do not fire live ammunition, even when under extreme provocation from the demonstrators.

The proximate causes of recent demonstrations (in 2015 )were, to quote one report, “plummeting food prices, ever-increasing taxes and social charges, and ‘crazy’ environmental standards”.

In short, the farmers drove into Paris to force their government to take measures that will secure their livelihood, when this was threatened by factors beyond their control.

The bigger point here, however, is that getting agriculture policy right is extremely difficult, whether in a rich country like France, or a ‘lower middle income’ nation like Kenya.

The key to understanding all this is in that phrase “plummeting food prices”. Generally, when the price of something “plummets” it is because there is a surplus of it: It is because more has been produced than is demanded by consumers at that time. And so, we come to the absurdity of an overabundance of food globally being the real reason why those farmers in France stage their fierce demonstrations.

It is within this global framework that I cannot really make sense of President Kenyatta’s focus on “food security” as a major pillar of his plans for the next five years.

Our real problem, when it comes to agriculture policy, is not that of a shortage of food, since the government can always buy food on the global markets to meet any anticipated shortfall. Our problem can instead be summarised in the following three points:

First, the greater part of our population — roughly 70 per cent of all Kenyans — live in rural areas and thus are largely dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.

Second, these people are mostly small-scale farmers — or ‘peasants’ to put it bluntly. This gives them relatively little room to manoeuvre when it comes to making that livelihood, as their farms are really very small.

And thus, arising from these two points (and the third consideration here) is that if the millions of youths now living in rural Kenya are not to drift into the towns and cities in search of economic opportunity — a doomed endeavour that will only lead to a rapid increase in our slum populations — then economic opportunity must be created for them in the rural areas where they now live.

Additional to these economic realities is the fact that historically, when Kenyan peasant farmers have been able to make a decent living off their land, it has rarely been by growing food crops that might contribute to ‘food security’. Whether you speak of tea or coffee or cotton or sugarcane or pyrethrum or cashew nuts — these all require an external market, whether local or global, for the farmers to sell their produce. Subsistence crops may give the peasantry ‘food security, but they do not offer a path to any meaningful prosperity.

My point then is that ‘food insecurity’ is a problem that can be solved by prompt imports of whatever food products might be needed once a shortage looms on the horizon — and in Kenya this usually means importing maize and wheat.

Schemes for irrigating vast tracts of semi-arid public land for growing maize may seem impressive when presented on PowerPoint by determined-looking technocrats. But there are other — and much cheaper — solutions to any impending food shortage the country may face.

What is not at all easy to solve is the problem of how to bring about a measure of prosperity to the rural masses, currently trapped in agrarian destitution: How to create for them a path into the middle class.

And this is the challenge that the President has skillfully avoided with his talk of food security”.

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