By Barau Emmanuel
The 2008 Chinese Milk Scandal brought the story home with regards to concerns about the safety and otherwise of imported food items consumed in Nigeria. It might be convenient to wave away the compromised safety and processing standards of foreign industrially manufactured food as a one-in-a-blue-moon thing, but there are concerns that should also be premised on the source of the foods so processed as well.
With increasing concerns by many developing countries about the origin of certain food items, approaches to food sufficiency should preoccupy the attention of policymakers in these countries. As a country endowed with an expansive arable land, it is a matter of considerable national opprobrium that Nigeria imports food items it can locally produce from its dwindling, earned foreign exchange. In essence, it is an issue of both public safety and national security, and very imperative that Nigeria gets it right.
In 2002, the Southern African countries of Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe turned down a 540,000 tonne food aid from the United States in the midst of a threatening starvation arising from drought. With 14 million people gripped by hunger, 2.3 million of them children under the age of five, the leaders of these countries caved in and accepted the food they had earlier rejected because the gift of grains were Genetically-Modified (GM). For the fear that the food they were receiving were not safe for human consumption, they had initially turned down the food aid, a reason that caused then Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa to send a team of scientists to the United States and other countries to investigate and make recommendations to the government.
In the end, they accepted food aid, even if it came with certain conditions. The question then becomes why is the American government offering to donate only GM foods when even the advanced countries of Europe were opposing them? In the emerging world of free trade, fears were also entertained about the likelihood of the gene pool in those countries getting mixed with the GM variety and affecting the acceptance of future food exports from these countries, especially to European markets. The late President Mwanawasa, entertaining this fear, had demanded that the grain aid to his country be milled.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) and its role of regulating global commercial activities between member states, has been both a blessing and not so much of a blessing, going by the way it has intervened to further liberalize and ease trade globally since its formation 20 years ago. The ‘dumping’ of goods, especially foods, by developed countries on less economically endowed states calls to question the tilted advantages enjoyed by the advanced nations, who also employ protectionism to shield their farmers from the effects imported products can have on their earnings. Added to this concern is the lack of adequate regulatory frameworks on foods and related products in many developing countries of the world such as Nigeria.
Of Nigeria’s total imports for 2014, the National Bureau of Statistics gives the percentage figure for food and beverages as 17 per cent and Asia accounts for about 43 per cent as source of these imports. The weak inspection procedure in some of the countries cited as source of Nigeria’s food is also a source of concern, especially where it concerns industrially processed foods. It is a matter of public health because foods from sources not vouched for. For example, the United States of America imports millions of tonnes of fish every year from China, but it is also known that less than five per cent of that is fully inspected by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), casting a huge shadow of worry on citizens whose health is put at risk. Owing to concerns about pervasive pollution even within China, taking such a huge gamble on foods from the Asian superpower is like wilfully walking into an openly poisoned banquet with a whet appetite.
Rogue businessmen seeking loopholes to make quick and fat profit would always be a feature on the economic landscape. The trend is mostly to make big profits with little investment; employ fewer labourers, use unethical practices to increase yield not minding if they are at the expense of the health of entire populations. The only lingua is profit, profit, profit.
Currently, there are reports of injection of unacceptable levels of growth hormones and additives by some of these businessmen that endanger public health as a result of the consumption of foods such as imported poultry products and farmed fishes. Edible oils made in such ethically challenged environment also pose a health risk due to the level of contaminants exceeding acceptable limits found in them. Contaminations also occur during transportation as well as from generous use of harmful pesticides.
The situation faced by the Southern African countries cited above cannot be said to be of their own making, the vagaries of climate and associated consequences from global warming being the obvious reason, but could have been prevented or ameliorated with sound agricultural policies that include proper and adequate storage facilities in the time of bumper harvests. It also serves as a signpost to other countries currently not doing enough in that regard.
Food security begins with a deliberate attempt not to allow the outsourcing of a country’s source of staple nourishment to another country. Pragmatism of policy in the area of ensuring self-sufficiency in food production is an imperative for any government worth its salt. For Nigeria, it is a lesson deserving the attention of all and sundry. It stands to reason that there are a lot of benefits to extract from the long value chain of agribusiness by the government of any state. There is savings from foreign exchange, millions of direct and indirect jobs, and of course, nourishment for the citizenry to ginger its leaders into action. Reviewing to adapt and working with blueprints or models that have worked in climes similar to Nigeria’s is one of the bold steps, along with adapting technologies that spur increase in yields per hectare of land cultivated. An old lore is of how crops were taken from certain lands and adopted to become national crops in new lands.
Nigeria, as part of the global village, should work with research institutions to take advantage of the wonders of science and embrace national safety. Loans and the support of financial institutions would also come handy. It should be in their mandate to encourage local agro-allied enterprises involved in food processing, working under the strictest standards of regulations to guarantee consumer safety. It will be a lot easier to ensure control here at home than enforcing same at farms and factories overseas.
Emmanuel is of the Department of Mass Communication, Kaduna State University, Kaduna
This opinion was first published in dailytrust.com.ng