• Thursday, May 30, 2024
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Fighting food inflation: Need for short-term food imports

Fighting food inflation: Need for short-term food imports

We are beginning to see some signs that the market-based economic policy choices of the Bola Ahmed Tinubu Administration are beginning to pay off, with the consistent appreciation in the value of the naira. The local currency appreciated 21.8 percent against the US dollar in March 2024 alone. However, February 2024 headline inflation, which climbed to 31.7 percent, the highest in 28 years, is not expected to change direction in March, although the rate of increase might begin to slow down.

Meanwhile, the real challenge remains food inflation, which increased steeply to 37.92 percent in February from 35.41 percent in January 2024. Thus, the food situation remains dire.

On a subregional basis, Nigeria produces 40 percent of the grains in West Africa. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, in 2022-2023, Nigeria produced 12.735 million tonnes of corn, 6.7 million tonnes of sorghum, 5.23 million tonnes of rice, and 2 million tonnes of millet. As impressive as these figures are, they still fall short of national consumption. For example, we have a deficit of 750,000 tonnes in the production of corn, and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that Nigeria produced only 57 percent of the 6.7 million metric tonnes of rice consumed in Nigeria in 2018.

Q: “Nigeria has for decades not been able to meet its food consumption needs with local production and has relied heavily on importation to meet the shortfall.”

It is evident that Nigeria is still very much in the throes of food insecurity, with FAO estimating that about 26.5 million people in Nigeria will struggle with food insecurity in 2024, which is indeed very sobering. “Moreover, approximately 9 million children are at risk of suffering from acute malnutrition or wasting. Of these, an alarming 2.6 million children could face severe acute malnutrition (SAM) and require critical nutrition treatment.”

Nigeria has for decades not been able to meet its food consumption needs with local production and has relied heavily on importation to meet the shortfall. According to Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) data, the total food import bill of Nigeria between 2018 and 2022 was a staggering N6.916 trillion, which informed the current government stance of a ban on food imports. Even though food imports are officially banned, huge amounts of food find their way into Nigeria through smuggling.

So, what should be the recommendation by the Economic Management Team Emergency Task Force (EET) to the Presidential Coordinating Council on the Economy (PCCE) on this matter? I think it is a question that requires sober reflection and should be approached from both an economic and a humanitarian point of view. Economically, Nigeria may not be able to achieve self-sufficiency in the production of its staple grains in the next two to three years. Therefore, the way forward is to officially import the estimated shortfall for each cereal in the next few years, even as a well-coordinated and ambitious programme is put in place to achieve self-sufficiency within a five-year time frame. Such a policy implemented in the near term will see food inflation come down, with an overall positive impact on headline inflation.

On the humanitarian front, millions of Nigerian children, especially in northern states and particularly in IDP camps in the Northwestern and Northeastern states, are exposed to malnutrition, and hundreds and thousands are quietly dying by the day, by the week, and by the month. These are the hapless poorest of the poor, whose only mouthpiece seems to be humanitarian aid organisations like Medecins San Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders, the World Food Programme, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

One of the key reasons for the ever-expanding scourge of malnutrition in Nigeria is food insecurity as a result of inadequate food production, insecurity in the food production belt of Nigeria, low agricultural productivity, and post-harvest losses, which are estimated to be as high as forty percent. Most of these factors are structural in nature, which means they cannot be fully solved in the short term. However, food importation to meet estimated shortfalls can be done as quickly as possible to meet the urgent needs of the poor and vulnerable, particularly children dying of malnutrition. On this score, it will be helpful if civil society organisations can drum up support for programmed food imports to close the gap in local food production shortfalls.

While I commend the efforts by the federal and state governments to accelerate food production through dry-season farming in irrigated farmlands and the augmented application of mechanised farming and other modern techniques, including the expanded use of fertilisers, the truth remains that it will take a minimum of six months to one year before tangible results can start rolling in with regards to these laudable initiatives.

It should be noted that while food inflation rings an alarm bell for managers of the economy to put measures in place to stem the tide, the humanitarian consequences do not grab headlines like headline inflation as computed and announced monthly by the NBS. Perhaps it is time the NBS began to also compile Nigeria’s misery index on a monthly basis, just like the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or the Purchasing Managers Index, which gauges the pulse of the economy, on a monthly basis.

It is time our political executives began to emphasise the humanitarian point of view more and more in political, economic, and social governance. We need to begin to measure the social impact of government budgets and development programmes. I believe programmed food imports in the short term are imperative.