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HUNGER LOOMS

Food system has failed the test

We store little. We add value to little. We lose a lot to poor pest control.

In Summary
  • Without imported wheat Kenyans simply won’t have any bread. Nor any rice either.
  • This pandemic has brought home just how vulnerable our food system is.
Food security
Food security

Coronavirus has brought setbacks, suffering, and forecasts of global depression, but if there has been one area where it has exposed our global fragility, it has been food.

The World Food Programme has warned us we are moving into a famine of biblical proportions. Likewise, economists keep muttering about food supply chain issues and food security. What they mean is, we are going to be very short of food. In fact, we are going to be more short of food than we have ever been in our lifetime.

So, how has this happened, and what can we do to prevent starvation? Well, the trouble began by locking most of the world in their homes during the planting season, stopping logistics that were transporting seeds, fertilisers and pest control products, keeping most seasonal workers away from the fields, and additionally messing up the ways food is bought (much of it through restaurants), resulting in agricultural throwaway and leaving farmers without payments to fund replanting, as other stocks were run down.

In Kenya, our horticulture, feeding Europeans, couldn’t get air cargo space and is still limited by tripled transport charges. We also had excessive rain that reduced our last harvest and the largest locust invasion this century.

There is, nonetheless, some time-lag in the impact of all these problems. Take our bread. Wheat accounts for 28 per cent of the cereals we consume, where maize accounts for 56 per cent. Yet we import nearly all of our wheat, some 30 per cent of it from Russia, which banned its wheat exports on April 26. Some of its wheat was already on ships.

But by mid-May, our commodity importers reported wheat deliveries from Russia had stopped. Some ordered extra from Argentina, because Argentina and Russia – being southern and northern hemisphere – have different planting cycles. But as the disruption feeds through to those who were already harvested as well as to those who were due to harvest, the alternative sources will become fewer.

And without imported wheat Kenyans simply won’t have any bread. Nor any rice either.

From the first glimpse of this hunger ahead, we at the Agrochemical Association of Kenya began communicating through every means possible that #EveryCropCounts this year, urging farmers to plant more, government to subsidise imputs, organisations to support every endeavour to control pests, manage soil, and maximise yields.

Encouraging maximum harvests through more planting and higher yields is but a first step. This pandemic has brought home just how vulnerable our food system is. We store little. We add value to little. We lose a lot to low yields and poor pest control, getting sometimes less than a fifth of the possible production from the land we have. 

Despite having some of the finest agricultural land in Africa, we import most of our food, and while we talk about sustainable production in the face of climate change, we have paid far less attention to the resilience of our food supplies to all other disruptions.

If one good thing can come out of the food challenge we now face, it will be our attention to stocks and storage, to yields and self-sufficiency and value addition. We should think of how to make food security about protecting ourselves from all the risks we didn’t think about in time for the coronavirus pandemic.