Columnists

Address looming food crisis urgently

farm

Workers collects maize harvest at a farm. FILE PHOTO | NMG

jenny

Summary

  • Problem. It’s the planting season almost everywhere on the whole globe, and farmers everywhere are struggling to get inputs.
  • So, this year, if we mess up and drop a third or two-thirds of our food production, we won’t be finding it so easy to import replacements from anywhere else.

Images of a woman police officer whooping with delight as she and fellow officers ran to beat up a driver during the curfew added extra, demonic air to our frightening times of disease and economic collapse, last week.

Yet, as we all watched that shocking video, that female person’s sneer about the ‘foodstuffs’ one driver was transporting gave me extra shivers.

For in that split second I saw something — it threw a switch that has been waiting a long time to be thrown — for I suddenly realised we have a blind spot in our national psyche about ‘foodstuffs’.

It’s the most improbable of gaps in our thinking considering our eternal quest for food security. But maybe, in fact, it’s because we are ‘food blind’ that we are food insecure, rather than for any other reason.

For sure, when one looks at our ingrained starvation, it would not take a lot of planning to end, if we were focused on ending it.

I remember years back reading a study about how during the harvest season almost everyone in Machakos has enough food, but off-season the majority of the rural communities are starving or, at the very least, malnourished and hungry. It was a paper on the value of forestry crops, looking at trees that produce high nutrient leaves all year round. A few of them in the shamba and no one would be malnourished off-season any more.

Instead, that Machakos off-season starvation is predictable. Food production for only a few months a year. Poor storage. Low incomes. It’s an equation that ends in hunger as surely as B follows A. Yet the no storage doesn’t matter, nor the low incomes if the food can still be got out of the plot all year.

However, last week’s ‘foodstuffs’ sneer triggered me so suddenly precisely because we are now heading into a food blind that will hurt us far more than every other year’s food blind.

Economic impact

Indeed, the last time I saw this one was during the post-election violence in 2008. Back then, our newspapers splashed on how the economic impact of the post-election violence would be limited. Not a soul cast an eye at who was putting the seeds in the ground that year to create our food.

Well, most of our Rift Valley farmers — and the Rift does, after all, grow quite a lot of our food — were not planting any seeds, it turned out, having been displaced. And no seeds in makes no maize out. The same equation for beans, sukuma wiki, even rice. The trick to growing food is to plant it in the first place.

And so now to 2020.

Who is looking at food now? Our food chain? Our food security by May, by June and by July? Because food is terribly basic. If you don’t grow it, you get none. If you grow it without fertilisers, you get some, but a lot less. If you grow it without pest control, you get some, but sometimes way less — like in 2017, when the fall armyworm ate 70 per cent of our Kenyan maize production.

Now, normally — and let’s face it nothing is normal any more — if we grow too little, we can import. In 2018, we imported Sh1 billion of food, as in agricultural produce, unprocessed.

Problem. It’s the planting season almost everywhere on the whole globe, and farmers everywhere are struggling to get inputs. So, this year, if we mess up and drop a third or two-thirds of our food production, we won’t be finding it so easy to import replacements from anywhere else.

Indeed, with only a fraction of the world’s cargo still moving, if we could buy it, how would we even move it in — with so many planes grounded?

Right now, we need to be full-on, maximum, food-focused, because no matter how many people the coronavirus could kill — and it could kill a lot — no food imports and our food production halved and half of us will die of starvation while the rest of the world is still dealing with its lockdowns and food chains. For ‘foodstuffs’ are our lifeblood.