As we try to protect the health and safety of citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is also a need to prepare for a hunger pandemic. In the past, many have died of hunger in many developing countries. The United Nations suggests that there is likelihood of shortages in food supply in the world. The UN explains that before COVID-19, food insecurity was a big problem.
Prior to COVID-19, the UN estimated that more than 820 million people, that is 1 in every 9 persons did not have enough food to eat. Of that number, 113 million were dealing with severe hunger that threatened their lives. It is expected that the pandemic will cause the figures to rise.
In Ghana, the groups to be hit hard in these times include those poor people in the urban areas, those working in the informal sectors and rural folks among others. Those in formal employment will not be spared because even with money, one will struggle to get food to buy if there is not enough supply in the markets.
The borders of many nations are closed and every country is looking inward to produce food for their people. Guaranteeing the supply of food which is a basic necessity of life will hit us hard during and after COVID 19. The biggest beneficiaries will be those businesses that venture into agriculture.
The problem of feeding the masses
I recall that one of the issues that we were grappling with as a country when discussions of possible lockdown came up was how to get food for the masses. There is a greater consensus that, it is very expensive to feed people with hot meals and therefore that approach is not sustainable.
Rather, special efforts ought to be put into ensuring the continuous cultivation and supply of affordable and nutritious food in the markets for consumers in the low income bracket. In spite of the restrictions in movement of people and job losses, people must eat. During the lockdown and even now, we have experienced a surge in food prices in the markets.
Commodity price service company, Esoko, expect prices to continue to rise due to the effect the restrictions in movement. The prices of food crops such as cassava, maize, tomatoes among others increase between 4% to 25%. It is not surprising that market women attributed the sudden surge in prices to their inability to get supplies.
It will be a mistake to allow the market forces of demand and supply to determine the price of food because it is a necessity for life. Allowing market forces to determine price will mean many will be disadvantaged. It therefore requires state interventions for the sake of the vulnerable in society.
There seems to be a lot of attention on manufacturing but it is clear that the same, if not more efforts should be paid to agriculture. One would have expected that we target those in need with our food supply initiatives. Now the big problem is data. Data on the very poor is unavailable, thereby making planning difficult. The absence of reliable data makes it almost impossible to know those who are really in need of support so we plan and support them.
Some practical suggestions
The following are some suggestions that government as well other stakeholders can adopt to ensure food security.
- As we have seen already during and after COVID-19, there is going to be job loses, but what once we have life, we will eat and food must be available and affordable for the jobless person. When people lose their jobs and are guaranteed of food for survival of themselves and their families at affordable prices, they are less likely to feel the uncertainty of job security or pressures of job losses. Even for those with jobs, if we are faced with scarcity, they will not get food to buy though they have money. Food must be available and affordable.
- For food to be available and affordable, a focus on cultivation of food must be pursued. The focus will help us in two main ways, thus food security and employment. Here, I am referring to not only commercial farming but also policy and incentives to encourage backyard or subsistence farming. I recently saw the CEO of Anyarko Farms, Richard Nunekpeku launch what he describes as “Citizens Nursery Bank” on his Facebook page. So far he has distributed over 5000 seedlings to individuals to cultivate domestically. They also provide periodic extension services on good agricultural practices to those who receive the seedlings. Such initiatives ought to be encouraged and replicated in the districts to help feed ourselves.
- With problems of climate change still around and food security been a concern, we have to ensure that the capacity to produce food is not hindered as we direct resources to sustain businesses through the government economic stimulus package as promised. Let us not forget to direct a reasonable chunk of the stimulus package into food production. After all, we do not expect industries to bounce back strongly in the short term because it will take up to three years and for some sectors even more for us to come out of the economic effect of the pandemic. But while we wait for full recovery from the effect of the pandemic, we will still have to feed our citizens.
- The Peasant Farmers Association has warned of eminent food shortages in the harvest season in November and December if a lot is not done to support famers. Thankfully the rains are coming and the planting season has begun; with practical policy such as targeted subsidies in various forms to support small scale farmers, we will be able to produce enough to feed ourselves.
- We must realize that there is a need for some social protection programmes specially developed to ensure food supply to the most vulnerable in society such us the elderly, physically handicap persons, homeless, those suffering from mental disorders and other related groups is required. Even in normal times those who fall in such groupings struggle to put food on the table and their situation will worsen when there is shortage of food. It is the responsibility of the state to assist such ones. Other NGOs and religious groups can also complement government’s efforts as they have already been doing.
- A concerted effort is required to address post-harvest losses. We cannot afford to lose food crops because we are unable to cart them from the farms to the markets and warehouses. This will be a Public Private Partnership (PPP), with the Ministry of Agriculture, farmers groups and NGOs in agribusiness playing a key role. Where there is harvested food, they must be located and transported to safety zones to avoid post-harvest losses.
- All the other activities related to the agriculture value chain must be enhanced. The National Buffer Stock Company must find innovative ways to store and get food to the districts. Possible alliances can be explored and formed with the private sector for the usage of warehouses in the various districts to decentralize the food storage and distribution. The National Buffer Stock Company must closely work with the MMDAs to find alternatives for transporting and storing food. It will be a failure on our part to hear news reports of food getting rotten on the countryside when many die of hunger in the cities.
- The Planting for Food and Jobs policy is showing signs of addressing some of our perennial food supply challenges. However, the policy is not without challenges and we need to admit the problems with the policy and bring all stakeholders on board to address them devoid of politics.
In conclusion, we need to realize that the responsibility to ensure food security does not rest entirely in the hands of the government. All relevant stakeholders must work together to build a resilient agriculture sector that can ensure consistent supply of food.
>>>the writer is a Lawyer, Senior Lecturer and Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Management Studies, University of Professional Studies, Accra. He can be reached via email at [email protected]