I serve on the Board of Trustees of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) headquartered in the Philippines and at our last meeting in April this year (2008), the Board had to issue a statement to the press, for the first time since I joined. The IRRI host country, the Philippines, was experiencing a fast exhalation in the price of rice and an apparent shortage of the commodity. Mind you, for the people of Philippines and indeed most of Asia, rice is virtually life, rice is like water. So once the rice sector is affected, whole livelihoods are affected. But as we attended this particular meeting, food price riots were being reported in other parts of the world as well. One could ask: why all of a sudden are food prices rising the world over? A lot has been written about this whole situation by experts and observers who are much more informed and much more analytical than I, and more continues to be written.

I felt an obligation to provide an editorial on this at this most timely moment for the next issue of AJFAND, given that the word “Food” is probably the most mentioned single word throughout our journal. Food is life; yes food is the first medicine as I always like to say. A hungry person is a very angry person, and indeed difficult to govern. Food riots do bring down whole governments. The French Revolution took place during very lean times, when the peasants had no bread to eat and the Queen asked why they could not be given cake! You see, bread is “Food” but cake is not. It is only a snack or a dessert which one can choose to eat or not, because one is assured of availability of food, from which we derive our satiety value (or a feeling of stomach satisfaction).Further, if one cannot afford bread, how can one afford cake which is more expensive? Now the whole Asian Green Revolution took place in the Philippines and around rice, spearheaded by this same institution on whose Board I serve, and which will be celebrating 50 years in another 2 years or so. Rice is a staple for those who eat it, just like other major staples are for their respective consumers major staples include: wheat, maize, sorghum, cassava, potatoes, bananas and so on. The moment that staple is disputed in terms of production and supply, whole livelihoods are seriously affected. More people consume rice than any other single staple and most rice consumed in so many other parts of the world other than Asia comes from Asia. For example, most countries of Africa are each year importing more and more rice for consumption, mainly from Asia, and just cannot produce enough on the continent to meet demand. As African consumers become more urbanized, their rice consumption goes up.

One can also conclude that as the price of rice goes up, so will the price of other food commodities. Economists will tell you they saw this coming way back. Joachim von Braun of IFPRI in his commentary of December 2007 commented on the early signs of the crisis. What were the indictors? Increasing gas prices with oil producing countries calling the shots, a weakening dollar, speculative responses as those with commodities hoarding and refusing to release them, and finally politicization of the whole issue. On the fringes is something that could get completely out of hand, and this is the issue of bio fuels. Let us face it, more than 50% of Africa’s food aid comes from the USA in form of maize and soybeans, both products which they use as animal feed (nothing new) and a lot more now being turned to bio fuel.

This is the same America whose dollar is falling fast, where consumers are complaining about the economy and gas prices (and also rising food) in a major election year. Clearly, it just does not add up.

Once Asian countries are unable to release their rice stock piles, if they have them at all, for sale on the world market, and the USA is unable to release food in quantities in normally does, then the rest of the world which normally depends on these 2 regions of the world will suffer, and very seriously too.

I also serve on the International Fertilizer Development Center Board of Trustees, Headquartered in Muscle shoals Alabama. Just after we had convinced IFDC to open offices in Nairobi, Kenya to serve the east African region, fertilizer prices became unaffordable in Kenya, tripling in 2 weeks and we thought it was because of the post-election violence. Well, we had obviously to revise that notion as we realized that this was a worldwide phenomenon. To produce fertilizer, energy is required and with energy prices hitting the roof, fertilizer prices can only go up.

Norman Borlaug, fondly known as the father of the Green Revolution received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and has since been crowned with more prizes in recognition of his contributions towards World Peace through increasing food supply. There are those of course, who will criticize Dr. Borlaug for his methods but the fact of the matter is that for the past 40 years, Asia which was faced with mass starvation underwent a transformative Green Revolution mainly because of his leadership in science and advocacy for the same across the world. We need another leap in food production. The same method, the same science, and new technologies now can work, especially in Africa where there has not yet been a Green Revolution.

Dr. Borlaug has not been enjoying good health lately and yet, the rising food prices and accompanying crisis have made him impartially come out to categorically state that “Africans need not starve”. Food crises can bring down governments, yes indeed. Remember the French Revolution?Whether true or not, it is said that King Louis XVI and his Austrian- born Queen Antoinette were dragged to their deaths by peasant women after the Queen commented “why not let them eat the cake” when the crowd was asking for bread.

Well the fact of the matter is that the period during which the Royals were being beheaded (in 1973), there was serious widespread famine sweeping through Europe. A series of poor harvests had led to soaring bread prices provoking food riots. In Paris at the time, a man’s daily bread took 97% of his income.

In 1846 there was another famine, the Great Irish potato famine. At that time, the diet was largely dependent on the Irish potato which at that time was hit by disease, the potato blight. The famine lasted quite a while about 7 years during which the population of Ireland was reduced by 20 to 75%. As the potato famine hit, grain was being exported outside of Ireland to other parts of the world. People tried unsuccessfully to rise against the government.

In total, there were 24 failures of the potato crop going back to 1728 and a population decrease of 1,600,000 (in 10 years).What do we learn from all this? That mono-cropping should not be encouraged. Instead, farmers should diversify food production as consumers also diversify their diet.

Secondly, a government needs to put in place mechanisms that safeguard a country’s food system. At the end of the day, the government should take responsibility over feeding its people. Thirdly, science is good. At the end of the day, plant pathology as a discipline has evolved because of these devastating plant diseases that have caused havoc to human life.

Lastly there is a lot Africa can learn from history.

Europe went through the types of food and nutrition challenges that Africa is going through now. But, there is absolutely no need to re-invent the wheel; we know better now, we have better early warning systems, food can be treaded and preserved more efficiently and new technologies can enable a peasant farmer to multiply food yields on a very small plot. There is absolutely no justification for any human being anywhere to starve anymore.

By Ruth Oniang’o,
Editor-in-Chief, AJFAND

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