Food: A national security issue calling for long-term solutions

History is rife with revolutions and riots caused by food. The alimentary link to political anarchy can be traced back to the days of the Roman Empire when the famous poet Juvenal wrote, “Two things only the people anxiously desire – bread and circuses. Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.”

The French Revolution is said to have been partly fueled by food as was the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Much recently, the Arab Spring of 2010-11 started off as a series of protests in Algeria and Tunisia against high food prices. In 2019, thousands of Sudanese took to the streets of Khartoum over high food and fuel prices and in the process toppled the dictatorial regime of Omar el Bashir.

Why is food such a major issue? The saying goes that a hungry man is an angry man. Hunger makes people restless and volatile. As the American author Alfred Henry Lewis remarked, “there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” Lack of food is a serious political and security threat.

In fact, the UN Security Council has declared that starvation is a form of warfare and in 2020, the World Food Programme won the Nobel Peace Prize for “preventing the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

The 1996 World Food Conference defined food security as a situation where people have “physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

This explains why countries must invest in food security. The recent surge in prices of basic food commodities like maize flour means many Kenyans are now sleeping hungry. Reports of a looming drought in the Horn of Africa signals the situation can only get worse.

While some factors behind the high cost of food items including Covid-19 and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war are beyond our control as a country, failure to invest in long-term solutions is also largely to blame. Kenya relies heavily on food imports to plug the deficit in local production of essential staples like maize and wheat.

This poses a national security risk, for instance, if supply of the commodities were to be disrupted for even a few weeks with grave consequences. One shudders to think what an angry, restless population is capable of doing. Crime would shoot up not to mention collapse of law and order leading to loss of lives and property.

Fortunately, food security is at the core of Kenya’s development strategy including the Big Four agenda. One of the long-term solutions under the Big Four food security pillar is boosting large-scale production through public-private partnerships (PPPs). This will result in an additional 700,000 acres mostly idle arable land coming under maize, potatoes and rice and other food crops.

To ensure this huge expanse of land is available, the Cabinet in May approved plans by the State to repossess idle land owned by parastatals and lease the same to private investors for commercial agriculture. A number of State institutions hold large swathes of idled land which can be converted to farmland.

This will help unlock thousands of acres for productive use thus improving local food supply, lowering cost of food and creating jobs. In addition, this will help in cutting reliance on food imports which apart from making the economy vulnerable to external shocks, provide an avenue for corrupt cartels to interfere with local food supply chains in a bid to make a killing with cheap imports, some of which are not even fit for human consumption, like maize contaminated with aflatoxin.

Cheap imports also hurt local farmers who feel demotivated to invest in their farms due to high input costs they know very well are unrecoverable. Expanding available acreage will also attract new and additional investments in the sector since leasing is a viable alternative to owning land. The PPP projects should integrate irrigation so as to minimize rain-fed production given the erratic weather patterns due to climate change.

Importantly, the process of converting public land to commercial farms should be transparent, inclusive and integrated into the national security agenda. Prof. Amanda Little of Vanderbilt University correctly argues that “long-term agricultural strategy must be built into national security plans.” This entails investing in sustainable farming practices, climate resilient crops and robust supply chains capable of withstanding disruptions.

Mr. Murumba is the CEO, Impulso Kenya Limited. peterwafula@impulsokenyaltd.com

  

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