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"Food should be a national security issue"

Interview with M. Chipeta on the food crisis in Eastern Africa

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
Mafa Chipeta, Subregional Coordinator for Eastern Africa and FAO Representative in Ethiopia

13 January 2009, Rome - The food security situation in Eastern Africa continues to worsen due to crop failures, high food prices and conflict. Millions of food insecure people are in need of assistance. Mafa Chipeta, Subregional Coordinator for Eastern Africa and FAO Representative in Ethiopia, calls for more investment in rural areas with high potential for agricultural production.

Ethiopia has witnessed bumper harvests over the past four years but recent droughts led to a failure of harvest leaving millions of people in need of emergency food aid. Many other countries in the region face a similar crisis. What are the main reasons for these recurrent crises?

Answer: This happens almost every year in Eastern Africa and is going to continue unless there is a substantive rethink about the way development in agriculture is supported. We need to think beyond responding at the consumption end and start putting resources on the production end.

The FAO Subregional Office services 300 million people in East Africa who consume about 20 percent of global food aid in a normal year. Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan are all in trouble - the region is pretty much what India was before the last world war.

The response to the crisis, as I see it, focuses on a number of related things:

  • Most resources go into food aid. There is little investment in agriculture and most of it is occurring in highly degraded areas because that is where the poor live. We are not investing enough in areas with higher potential to produce surpluses that can feed the poor.
  • Farmers are being asked to bear the full price of inputs like fertilizers. It would make sense to lower the price of fertilizer to boost domestic production.
  • Only a small percentage of improved seeds is used - that needs to be changed.
  • The market does not reward good production. If you produce a lot, prices will drop again. You need stable markets. Even though the market price may be attractive, the majority of farmers in East Africa don't have the capacity to respond because they do not produce enough. In fact they have to spend more to make up the difference between what they produce and what they need to eat.

Hasn't the food price crisis created a sense of urgency, a sense that food insecurity needs a longer-term response?

A: It has created a sense of urgency but the response has focused on the cities where discontent shows up more easily. Our argument is that the sustainable response is to produce more, not to import more. We need to create a sense of urgency, create a sense that food is a national security issue in the whole sub-region.

Q: Is commercial agriculture part of the solution?

A: You need both small-scale and bigger farms. One of the problems is that some countries have too many farmers and need to get people off the land into other activities. But in order to create jobs beyond the farm agriculture has to produce more, so you have a chicken-and-egg situation. If you do not get sufficient productivity through proper inputs, stable markets and adequate attention to high potential areas you will never get farmers off the land.

Q: What is FAO doing to help Eastern Africa address food insecurity?

A: We are involved in both development and humanitarian interventions. But we also focus a lot on strengthening vulnerable households' resilience to cope with future shocks, for example through rehabilitation of water infrastructure, protection of natural resources, support to land certification and strengthening of veterinary services for better surveillance and control of transboundary animal diseases.

Overall, we focus a lot on advocacy, analytical work and policy advice. What we are saying is that scarce resources are better spent on increasing production than on subsidizing food. If you subsidize grain, next year you have to subsidize it again. If you subsidize fertilizer, next year you have less to subsidize because you will have produced more.

(Interview by Anne Delannoy)

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