How to bring down food prices

How to bring down food prices
22 October 2020
COVID-19 has had a dire effect on the economy, leading to persistent lockdowns and looming high unemployment. It has also increased the strain on food demand. The situation is a critical challenge. In this interview with DANIEL ESSIET,  Chief Executive, Agricultural and Rural Management Training Institute (ARMTI), Dr Olufemi Oladunmi suggests measures to improve the country’s food security and achieve a better position in its balance of payments.

Some significant reforms have been introduced to increase the country’s agricultural output. How has the agricultural sector responded to them since 1979?

Reforms and policies are instruments of change. They do not, on their own, change anything until they are set in motion by consistent implementation over a period of time. I will say that the nation’s agricultural sector is growing, but not at the pace we hoped it will yet. This is, perhaps, due to the fact that we are still being distracted by the cheap money we get from oil. However, the path of agricultural commodity value chain development that the country is treading is a welcome development for accelerated growth and development of the sector.

What are the top agricultural issues Nigeria should focus on to meet its food security needs?

We need to pay more attention to issues of post-harvest loss management, agricultural produce processing, farmer (i.e. smallholders) empowerment, market linkage, access to improved agricultural inputs, irrigation, mechanisation, among others.

People have been talking about productivity enhancement through development of high-value commodity supply chains. While this has been driven largely by the private sector, what greater role can the public sector play?

Agricultural commodity value chains are basically private sector-driven. The public sector is expected to complement the private sector by providing an enabling business environment; and regulating actors and transactions along the various commodity chains.

Would you say agricultural research has become more relevant to address the emerging challenges faced by farmers?

Given the rate at which the world is evolving, agricultural research continues to be highly relevant in addressing the challenges confronting farmers, including low productivity, post-harvest loss, etc. There is, therefore, the need to develop more high value varieties of various agricultural commodities, for instance. To increase agriculture growth, what is fundamentally required is to increase productivity and the efficiency of the agricultural research system.

What should the government do to improve the quality of the research system, increase the accountability of the researchers and reward them based on performance?

We need improved collaboration and coordination among agricultural research outfits in the country; goal and target setting for each institute; effective monitoring and evaluation framework/strategy; and adequate funding. Moreover, the theme of agricultural research development should be holistic along the nation’s objectives of agricultural development.

The share of agriculture in gross domestic product (GDP), however, has been declining due to the growth of the industrial and service sectors. How can we reverse this?

The observed low productivity in smallholder farms is worrisome. For instance, in cereals the nation’s average productivity is just about two tonnes/hectare, which is far less than the global average. Low productivity is the product of a number of factors, including low technical know-how, poor access to improved agricultural input, low or no farm mechanisation, restriction to rain fed agriculture, poor access to funds, etc. To  reverse this trend, all hands must be on deck. First, the smallholder farmers must help themselves by working together in formidable commodity-based groups. Moreover, extension agents need to be empowered to do their work. Smallholders, through their groups, need to develop direct linkage with their off-takers. A lot of ingenuity (in form of business services) need to be incorporated into various commodity value chains to solve the problems of poor access to funds and mechanisation.

The processing sector lags significantly behind that of several other developing countries, because of poor rural infrastructure characterised by low-quality feeder roads, the erratic availability of electricity, and a lack of cold-storage facilities. What blueprint would you recommend for the government?

I recommend the development of agricultural produce processing clusters for the priority commodities in each local government area of the country. Concerted effort should be made to ensure the provision of required infrastructure in all clusters to enhance efficiency and sustainability.

Since the lifting of the lockdown, food prices have risen dramatically. Why? What policies or practices would you recommend to reverse this trend?

Commodity price is a function of a number of factors, chief among which is the cost of production and marketing. The recent rise in the price of food may not be unconnected with the increase in cost of input, especially, those imported; increase in cost of transportation occasioned by increase in fuel price; shortage in supply of farm labour resulting from the ban on transnational movement due to COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, seasonality affects food availability and prices in Nigeria.To reverse this trend, the productivity of the nation’s agricultural sector needs to significantly improve so that the production cost can be spread on larger output; post-harvest loss needs to be reduced to the barest minimum; agricultural production should be an all-year activity, not limited by rain, etc.

What should the government do to incentivise agro food processing?

Stable power supply, tax reduction, enforcement of quality standards, ban or tariff increase on the importation of similar processed food products.

Why do we need food parks?

We need food parks to facilitate linkage between producers, processors and marketers. This will help reduce post-harvest loss, increase actors’ income, create more employment opportunities, contribute significantly to national food and nutrition security, among other things.

The dairy and animal husbandry sector can develop and prosper only if it is able to increase farmers’ income and prosperity. How can we make dairy a source of farmer prosperity in this sector?

The journey to a prosperous dairy industry begins with the establishment of effective linkages between smallholder producers and the market. This affords the producers valuable information on market requirements (e.g. quality, handling, breed, etc.). Once the link is initiated, strict adherence to pre-set terms and conditions by parties will ensure sustainable prosperity for all actors along the chain. Moreover, we need to inculcate into the smallholders the culture of business (away from subsistence production which they are used to).

What is your view on the sustainability of aquaculture and fisheries in the future?

It can only be sustainable if the sub-sector is run on the concept of agricultural commodity value chain, which requires that the main actors along the chain are well integrated with each other.

What is the potential of Micro Irrigation (MI) in Nigeria?

Micro irrigation will significantly increase productivity in crop production in Nigeria. This will serve as insurance against unexpected drought; and make all-year round crop production possible. Farmers practising micro irrigation will also earn higher returns, especially, during off season periods.

What are the challenges associated with implementing MI across Nigeria?

It is capital intensive, but we will eventually achieve so much by starting and going a step at a time. With determination, it can be achieved.

What is the future of irrigation systems?

Irrigation is the future of global food production. It assures higher productivity and all year-round availability of food. We must begin to plan to seriously invest in irrigation facilities.

What are the challenges of the food processing segment?

Power supply, availability of quality raw materials, adherence to quality standards, competition with imported products, etc.

How has improved seeds sown the success of agriculture?

Productivity starts with sowing quality and improved seeds.The better the seed industry, the better the agricultural sector of the nation.

Where does the seed industry stand in terms of innovation?

A lot of work is being done by breeders and other experts in the seed industry. Today, we have crops that are bio-fortified with essential micro-nutrients, high-yielding varieties, etc. All of these are the outcome of the innovative and assiduous work experts in the seed industry are doing.

What are your thoughts on genetically modified (GM) technology in crops? Is it favourable for our agricultural development?

While GM technology helps to improve agricultural productivity, I will rather wait for our health and biosafety experts to certify that GMOs are sustainably safe for human consumption before I approve of its consumption.

What suggestions would you like to present the government for improving farmers’ condition?

Facilitate the development of the value chain of priority commodities. Encourage cluster food production and processing. Provision of basic amenities/infrastructure e.g. feeder roads, irrigation facilities, power, etc. and access to farm machines in the clusters. Provision of relatively cheap funds, etc.

What scope of growth do you see for the tractor industry?

Productivity improves with mechanisation. To improve our food security status as a nation, the tractor industry must grow.