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AS THE WORLD MARKS 'FOOD DAY'

By NBF News
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Today is world Food Day. It is a day set aside by the United Nations (UN) to direct global attention to the significance of food security to human survival and why lack of self-sufficiency in food production can be a major threat to the economies of nations, especially those of developing countries. Nigeria is one of them.

The theme for today's event which began in 1979 is: 'Food Prices - From Crisis to Stability.' According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the theme is aptly chosen in order to shed more light on the current unprecedented price increases of staple foods and what can be done to mitigate the impact, particularly in the most vulnerable, poor countries of the world.

This, of course, has serious implication on population. Available statistics paint a grim picture that the flow of food supply is at its worst minimum level, while the number of hungry people is increasing at a frightening rate. This is largely due to the combined repercussions of high food prices, severe weather conditions and global financial crunch, among other factors.

We acknowledge the fact that the world may have entered a permanent food crisis unless urgent measures are taken to halt the present astronomical price increases in essential food items. The fear may have been heightened by the current reality that the level of food production is no longer keeping pace with population explosion. This has resulted in massive food importation in many countries. Sadly, Nigeria's record in food importation leaves much to be desised.

The poor remains the hardest hit of this trend. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the Federal Government spends a princely N630 billion on food import yearly. Also, a recent FAO report claimed that the lives of over 12 million Nigerians are threatened as a result of food insecurity. In a similar vein, the World Bank in a recent report said that if urgent steps were not taken before the end of this year, rising food prices would push nearly 70 million people into extreme poverty. Nigeria is listed among the nations threatened by the price upswing of staple foodstuff.

We urge government to use the opportunity of the world Food Day, especially the theme of this year's event, to retool its policy on the agriculture sector with the aim of achieving food security for the country. The strategy must aim at increasing transnational and non-governmental initiatives that will give it a new impetus. Public awareness on the challenge of hunger should be addressed.

It is sad that in spite of the importance of the sector and the huge budgetary allocation to it, there is little output to show for it. Government's policy inconsistency has not helped matters. For instance, in 2009, government budgeted N400 billion to the sector, representing about 8.5 percent of the total budget. But in 2010, allocation to the sector was only 3.7 percent. Worse, farmers are still finding it hard to access fertilizer needed for increasing productivity, while mechanized farming is still not at a high scale.

It is therefore imperative that government and the relevant authorities should deliver a coordinated response to meeting food sufficiency in the country. Food is a necessity. In that regard, to prevent recurring food crises will require all hands on deck. Decisive action is needed. This is the time to increase budgetary allocation to the agricultural sector, with increased incentives to large-scale mechanized farming and the rehabilitation of all the moribund river basin authorities in the country. Concrete action should be taken by creating and strengthening all areas that can boost food production. It is not enough to just list agriculture as priority sector.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the success of our country and the economy depends on achieving food security. The economy should be diversified, independent of oil. It is ironic that hunger is staring majority of the citizens in the face in spite of the abundant natural resources and our comparatively good weather condition.

What is needed now are strategic measures that will rev the agricultural sector and stimulate fresh interest. It is the same sector that was the mainstay of the economy before and after independence, with the three main regions then, each having comparative advantage in groundnut, cocoa and palm oil. Government should revisit the strategies of that era, by mobilizing both medium and small-scale farmers and the provision of infrastructure such as road and railways.

All said, ensuring food security and combating the current high food prices go beyond rhetorics. It requires sincerity of purpose. Without food security, insecurity may take over.