The first half of 2008 has seen worldwide food prices rise by percentages not seen in the last half a century. Anectodal claims relate that at one point the price of rice rose 25% in the span of two hours in the same market on the same day! A combination of factors have led to this scenario. Top of the list is the rising cost of fuel which underpins all kinds of production. Other culprits are almost all closely related to this one factor. These include the even more dramatic rise of fertilizer prices and other farm inputs.

While noting that the scarcity of traditional fuel is mostly to blame, it’s ironical that the noble search for an alternative energy source – biofuels – should prove so detrimental to poor folks’ survival as tonnes of grains go towards manufacture of biofuels at the expense of food. It’s a dilemma.

Other factors often cited as cause of food insecurity are rapid urbanization and erratic weather. But i digress. The protectionism of domestic markets by the rich countries are just as much to blame. Subsidies and unfavourable market practices discourage farming in poor countries. So does lack of credit access. Creation of sustainable agriculture in Africa depends on revision of policies in the Northern hemisphere.

It is against this backdrop that FAO held its 25th regional conference for Africa in Nairobi this past week. But like most other UN conventions, this talkshop will probably yield only talk and no action. The ultimate responsibility squarely lies with leaders who have to find ways to feed their populations or risk revolutions. A hungry man is an angry man. When opening the conference, Kenya’s agriculture minister mentioned that 46% of Africans are hungry! That’s a hell lot of angry people! A good number of countries, including Kenya, have already witnessed riots stemming from the sharp increase in food prices. Similar and sometimes worse riots have taken place elsewhere in the world; from neighboring Somalia to far off lands like Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivore, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Senegal, Uzbekistan… and counting. So while the bourgeoisie stay cushioned from the harsh realities (and suggest “let them eat cake” like Marie Antoinette of France did over two centuries ago when her subjects demonstrated for lack of bread) they should know that they’ve been put on notice.

It’s regretable that Africa has moved from being a net exporter of food in the 1980s to unhealthily relying on food imports now. Part of the solution now is to invest more in agriculture. Most African countries allocate not more than a paltry 4% of their annual budgets to agriculture, putting it way behind healthcare and education. A lot more investment needs to be done in modern technologies, including but not limited to GM. Improvement in infrastructure is also paramount.

It is a fact that we are not about to see reversal in the price trends for the next few years. No amount of handouts will help us this time round. Long term measures are what we need. Unless our leaders realise this and act accordingly, they face the same fate as Marie Antoinette – the guillotine.


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