Understanding food insecurity in Nigeria

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By Adémólá Òrúnbon

Nigeria has rapidly grown into a major food importing nation as the government has neglected the agricultural sector since petroleum is considered a more viable resource for economic development. This situation quickly polarised the nation into high and low income groups. Unfortunately, while only small fraction of the population benefits from the oil wealth, the big population suffered the misfortune of food insecurity as they can hardly afford the rising prices of imported foods. However, though at a subsistence level, a sizable ratio of the population in Nigerian is still employed in the agricultural sector.

Food security is a phenomenon which is multi-dimensional with economic, environmental and social aspects. Unfortunately, the greater share of the population of the undernourished is located in the developing countries. Although the total population of the food insuring people in Asia outweighs that of Africa, 18 out of 23 nations where undernourishment is prevalent are from Africa.

Food is no doubt, the most basic of all human needs. So many efforts have been sunk in improving the quality as well as production of world food supplies; yet, food insecurity remains prevalent, particularly in the global southern nations of Asia and Africa and in Nigeria. Malnutrition has resulted in death of many of its citizens. African Food Security Briefs (AFSB) estimates that approximately one out of every three persons in the sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished. Achieving a sustainable economic development in Nigeria and Africa at large will continue to be a mirage without well-nourished and healthy people.

In fact, failure to ensure food security has unavoidably resulted in many social problems including civil unrest and riots in many major cities of the world. Some economic experts have described food system and its governance as a process with complex web which many times overlapped or even contradicted with formal policies and regulations, and made even worse by the unwritten laws and practices which may not be susceptible to political subjugations. Food insecurity is therefore strongly linked with other global issues, such as population growth, surge in energy demand as well as completion for land and water and issues of climate change.

Though, Nigeria prides herself as the giant of Africa with her economy becoming the largest in 2014, the poverty rate in the country is alarming. Not less than 70% of the Nigerian population is surviving on less than a Dollar per day while food insecurity prevalence in the low income urban households and rural areas respectively stands at 79% and 71%. Since the discovery of oil in Nigeria in the 60s, the agriculture sector became less important to the government as it cannot withstand the economic sagacity of the oil industry. Thus, Nigeria became heavily dependent on importation of food. The rural areas have become even more vulnerable to malnutrition, erratic supply of food items, unaffordable food costs, low quality foods and sometimes complete lack of food. This situation is more prevalent in many parts of the northern region of Nigeria.

Nigeria is blessed with very diverse and rich vegetation capable of supporting large population of livestock and has estimated surface water volume of about 267.7billion cubic meters and underground water of about 57.9billion cubic meters. The ecological zones in Nigeria are also very diverse with the semi-arid Sudan (Sahel) zone, Guinea Savannah and Derived Savannah zone as well as Forest and Mangrove (high rainfall, moist sub-humid and very high humidity) zone. A few variations exist within each ecological zone. The ecology and trends in precipitation in a region determine what kind of farming system the people will practise, their food preference and how they make use of natural resources in their environment.

Since independence, agriculture has been a major contributor to Nigeria’s economy. The agriculture sector has been metamorphosed by commercial activities from small to medium and large scale level of the market. The principal cash crops include cocoa, oil palm and rubber while major staple foods are rice, cassava, yam, maize, taro, sorghum and millet. Production of timber and livestock rearing such as goats, sheep, cattle and poultry as well as artisanal fisheries are the common occupation.

Agriculture in Nigeria has remained the largest non-oil contributor to the national economy, accounting for 41.84% of the GDP in 2009 and employing almost 70% of the national work force. The farmers are mostly small-scale subsistence farmers totalling about 14million with an average farm size of one hectare in the south and three hectares in the north of Nigeria. Despite the fact that the federal government has neglected the sector sequel to the discovery of commercial quantity of petroleum resource, the inevitability of agriculture to the Nigerian economy cannot be over-emphasised.

Nigeria is grossly an agrarian state which is reflected in the fact that over 70% of her economically active population is employed in the agriculture sector. The difference lies in the kind of crops cultivated in the various regions of the country depending on the soil characteristics and climatic conditions. However, due to the discovery of oil in the south-south region of the country, agricultural activities have been grossly limited resulting from the consequential industrialisation and frequent oil spillage. Also, agricultural activities in the north are sometimes plagued by extreme weather conditions such as draught and flooding. The south-west and south-east have over the years had a relatively balanced condition for agriculture but unfortunately, these two regions also have the highest level of education in the country and mostly seek opportunities outside the agriculture sector.

Food insecurity is a multifaceted problem. It is quite an uphill task discussing the driving factors for food insecurity in Nigeria. Nigerians lack enthusiasm for local products and often consider them inferior to imported food products. The emergence of oil sector marked the imminent end of the agriculture sector as the huge revenue generated from petroleum products shifted attention from agriculture. The government embarked on importation food and local production shrank, especially as wealth from oil has changed the status and tastes of many Nigerians in favour of foreign goods. This, coupled with socio-political instability which precluded the economic downturn, civil war, dwindling human resource base, gender inequality, education decadence, poor health facilities and the general loss of good governance have coexisted to further degenerate food accessibility.

Modern agriculture has become so highly industrialised and dependent on energy. Mechanised farmers are very reliant on consistent power supply which has eluded us has become a mirage for successive government to achieve. Now, much of the agricultural products we consume are produced in farms located far away and processed in distant locations before being imported into Nigeria.

The whole of these processes require a lot of power and fuel to keep food prices low and affordable for the common man. However, with escalating prices of petroleum products, there have been calls for diversification to increased energy efficiency. One key alternative is biofuel and other agriculture-based energy production. This alternative will create more completion for food items particularly in developing nation and depending on how the process is managed, may increase food insecurity.

*Òrúnbon, a journalist, poet and public affairs analyst, can be reached via [email protected]