FOOD SECURITY

Nothing matters more than agriculture policy

Seeking food security is one thing; and seeking to bring about rural prosperity is another.

In Summary
  • The government owes it to all of us, to let us know what it considers to be the real priority here.
  • Farmers in rich nations have long realised that the best way to increase their income is not by bringing in a greater harvest, but rather by lobbying for greater government subsidies.

There is something to be said for defining national goals, or indeed any goals at all, with some precision.

As an example, let us consider Kenya’s policy options on agriculture – arguably the most important policy challenge for this country given that we are, fundamentally and demographically, a nation of poor farmers.

A few years back, when President Uhuru Kenyatta first designated ‘food security’ as one of the top national priorities under the Big Four agenda, there were quite a few of us who had reservations about this.

It seemed that the debate on ‘food security’ – not just in Kenya but in other nations as well – was mostly focused on improving production of food crops. And so arose the view that the goal should be defined more specifically as ‘rural prosperity’ since, after all, most of our poor who were ‘food insecure’ were in rural areas; and they lacked food because they had no money to pay for it.

Food security, as defined by the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security, grandly demands that “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life”.

Now under this definition, food security can be achieved by having an elaborate system of storage silos and warehouses, with enough maize or other staple foods, to ensure that if there is a famine in any corner of the country, free food packages can be distributed to those in need.

The objective here would be to ensure that no Kenyan goes hungry. But this would not make Kenyan farmers any more prosperous.

On the contrary, such prosperity will often come only through growing crops that have a lucrative export market, and with the specific policy objective of putting money in the pockets of individual farmers.

My idea is that provided small-scale farming is profitable, the question of food security will resolve itself: the roughly 70 percent of our population who depend on such farms for their subsistence, will have enough money to buy all the food they need.

The world, in most years, produces more food that it can readily consume. A few decades ago, the European Union nations, for example, set attractive guaranteed prices for their farm produce. The result was that the European dairy farmers produced so much milk as to lead to “butter mountains” and “milk lakes”. In North America there were warehouses overflowing with cereals – a huge surplus that had to be destroyed or given away to famine-stricken nations of the time, like Somalia.

In general, farmers in rich nations have long realised that the best way to increase their income is not by bringing in a greater harvest, but rather by lobbying for greater government subsidies.

Turning back to ‘food security’, my idea is that provided small-scale farming is profitable, the question of food security will resolve itself: the roughly 70 percent of our population who depend on such farms for their subsistence, will have enough money to buy all the food they need.

To further illuminate this point, consider smallholder tea and coffee growers who in decades past used to reliably have the same annual income as a lower-level civil servant.

Given that we consume only about three percent of the coffee grown in Kenya; and only about five percent of tea; would it not be true that improved yields for coffee and tea farmers would not in any way directly contribute to national ‘food security’, but would all the same be a great step forward for ‘rural prosperity’?

My point then is that seeking food security is one thing; and seeking to bring about rural prosperity is another. And the government owes it to all of us, to let us know what it considers to be the real priority here.

Finally, I think most Kenyans would agree with me that what the current government has excelled at – allowing for the major hiccup which is the Standard Gauge Railway – is the creation of new infrastructure, and the upgrading of previously existing infrastructure.

Ports, airports, roads, railways, water and sanitation systems – all have been built, expanded, repaired, or otherwise significantly improved over the past few years.

And yet, strange to say, modernising public infrastructure is not one of the government’s priority targets within the Big Four agenda.