Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Maize subsidies

Maize subsidies
By The Post
Wed 12 Dec. 2012, 10:10 CAT

Food security is central to the economic, political and social future of our country. Meeting the basic needs to families must take top priority in any government planning, with an agricultural policy that really respects the earth, the farmer and the consumer. Hunger in our society is a sign of gross injustice and a block to development.

We need to provide food at prices which both give a just return to farmers and are reasonable to consumers. We evaluate agricultural policies with particular concern for the sacredness of the land, and justice, especially towards the poor.

Independence is meaningless if we cannot feed ourselves as a country. And since independence, successive governments have been battling with the issue of food security. Many initiatives have been undertaken by government to deal with this challenge. The total failure of these endeavours to achieve the basic and essential objective of supplying all our people with enough food to develop their potentialities for enjoying a full life is today more evident than ever. We still have today many people who each day cannot meet the basic food needs necessary for a decent human life. And it is a strict duty of justice not to allow fundamental food needs to remain unsatisfied. Economic justice requires that each individual has adequate food to survive to develop and thrive. And economic growth depends in the very first place on social progress.

By now, it is perfectly obvious that the agricultural policies we have been pursuing have failed to eradicate hunger and give our people the necessary food security. We cannot say these policies haven't been well-meant. They actually have been more well-meant though unsuccessful. The painful truth is that, despite the efforts to eradicate food insecurity, this challenge persists and tends to grow. Why?

What this means is that we need to go back to the drawing board, re-examine critically everything we have done so far in this domain. We need to come up with new initiatives to enable us to meet our people's needs for basic foodstuffs as much as possible.

Our government has been spending too much money every year subsidising the production of maize and mealie-meal. But nothing seems to be changing, and this is increasingly becoming a permanent feature. The government is spending over US$300 million every year to subsidise maize production and mealie-meal consumption. The government is buying a 50-kilogramme bag of maize at K65,000 and selling it to the millers at K60,000.

And part of this maize and mealie-meal is consumed in the neighbouring countries. Even some of the subsidised fertiliser ends up in our neighbouring countries. What it means is we are subsidising maize production and consumption not only in Zambia but also in our neighbouring countries. This is not sustainable, no matter how much we love our neighbours and would like to help them.

An immediate solution to this problem should be found. Probably there may be need to consider modifying our subsidy to maize production and consumption. If this cannot be done in a more efficient and effective manner, a total removal of the subsidy to maize production and consumption may be inevitable. In saying this, we are not in any way advocating total removal of subsidies to agriculture. We are simply recognising the need for more efficient and effective subsidies. The current subsidy to maize production and consumption has proved not to be efficient and effective.

And this also calls for serious consideration of other food crops like rice. We cannot continue to depend on maize for our staple food; it's too expensive. It will be much cheaper for us as a nation to start seriously considering increasing the consumption of rice, which is much cheaper to produce. Rice doesn't need fertilisers and it is much more environmentally friendly to produce.

We shouldn't cheat ourselves that we have always been consumers of maize meal. The consumption of maize meal is something that was promoted by the mining corporations and the commercial farmers they had promoted. Our people were consumers of millet, sorghum and cassava. The consumption of maize meal was very limited. The same way we were made to become dependent on maize meal can be done to rice. We should learn to start to live within our means. In our traditional society, maize was produced cheaply because there was no use of fertilisers and other complicated farming methods.

At the current cost of producing maize, it can be said to be beyond us as a staple food and we have to start looking elsewhere. We are not saying the production of maize should be stopped. No. What we are saying is that maize should be produced, sold and consumed at its real cost. Those who can afford to eat maize nshima two or three times a day, let them do so, while those who cannot afford it are provided with affordable alternatives like rice.

Of course, the issue of maize meal has been highly politicised. But it can also be depoliticised in the same way. And this government is in a far much better position to change things because it is a highly popular one. If Michael Sata went around the country explaining why we need to increase the consumption of rice and reduce on maize, people will understand him better and follow. There is need for political mobilisation on this issue. Making food cheaper both in terms of production and consumption should be the aim of this government.

It will be very difficult under the current policy and approach to have sustainable agricultural production and food security. We are spending too much money for very little food security. If part of the money we are spending on maize subsidies was diverted to other crops, we would achieve a much higher level of food security than we currently have. If something has failed, there is no need to hang on to it, come what may.

Moreover, the majority of the world population lives on rice. We have all the conditions in almost every province of our country needed for the production of rice and other food crops. It is not wise for us to cling so much to maize. A political decision needs to be made for us to adopt more rational, more sensible agricultural and food security policies.

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