Friday, January 11, 2013

Millers and their prices

Millers and their prices
By The Post
Fri 11 Jan. 2013, 14:00 CAT

The enjoyment of a decent standard of living is frustrated, on part of the poor, when there is an exorbitant and constant rise in prices of basic foodstuffs.

There has been a constant rise in the prices of foodstuffs, especially mealie-meal. While this rise may not affect very much the small minority of well-off people, it affects dramatically the majority of the common people and in a special way the immense crowd of the poor. This increase of prices is again provoked by the pressure of an artificial shortage created by millers, traders.

And this price increase of some food commodities has not been matched by the corresponding increase in wages and prices for goods produced by farmers, as would be logically expected.

The right to live a dignified life can never be attained unless all basic necessities of life, including food, are adequately and equitably available to everyone.

We expect government bodies to have sound policies over the sale and pricing of essential foodstuffs. We need to provide food at prices which both give a just return to farmers, millers and are reasonable to consumers.
Economic justice requires that each individual has adequate food to survive, to develop and thrive. With the current high prices of food, there are many people who each day cannot meet the basic food requirements necessary for a decent human life.

And as we have consistently pointed out, it is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental food needs to remain unsatisfied.
The current food supply system is inadequate, chaotic, irrational and is likely to lead to bigger problems in future. Michael Sata's government has inherited this system from the previous regimes. It is not a system that this government should retain. It is something that this government should strive to change because it is a system that has not worked well, that has not helped to ensure food security in our country.

It doesn't make sense for the government to retain policies that every year require the President of the Republic to police mealie-meal prices and threaten those who maintain high prices with all sorts of sanctions. The threats that are being issued by Michael to millers are understandable and may be justified. But they are not new. Michael is not the first president of this country to deal with millers in such a way. It is such problems that in the 1980s forced the UNIP government of Dr Kenneth Kaunda to nationalise milling enterprises. But did it work? The answer is a categorical no.

It didn't work. Why? Probably because nationalising the milling enterprises did not address the fundamental issues that gave rise to this perennial problem. Mealie-meal shortages continued despite KK nationalising the milling industry. Every president of this country has had to meet millers; do a deal with some millers. But is this the best way to deal with the problem?

A more stable, permanent solution must be found for this serious problem. The total failure of the initiatives that have been taken by all the governments and leaders who have presided over the affairs of this country is today more evident than ever.

There is a great danger that government policies, if not combined with clear social concern, will bring socio-economic deprivation.

Our excessive dependence on maize meal is proving problematic and needs to be addressed. At the current cost of producing maize, it is impossible, unrealistic and irrational not to move towards serious crop diversification. We have other grains like rice, sorghum and even cassava that can give us the needed starch at a relatively low cost or price.

Every year we are subsidising the production of maize by not less than US$300 million and buying maize from farmers at KR65 per 50kg bag and reselling that to millers at KR60. For how long should we continue doing this?
Here the issue is not whether we should subsidise maize production and consumption. The issue is whether we can afford to do so or not. If we have a lot of money and we can afford to spend it in such an irrational way, it's fine. But if we don't have that type of money, then there is a problem and we must start considering sensible alternatives.

We insist that it is time we started moving away from this excessive dependence on maize meal and start to teach our people to eat cheaper grains like rice. There is a lot of rice in the country, but it will require a lot of work to make our people accept it as a staple food that is just as good, if not better than, maize. The majority of the world's population depends on rice. What harm will it do us to join them?

Moreover, we shouldn't cheat ourselves that we have always been dependent on maize meal for our survival. Maize meal is a new thing to us. It is not that old in this country. It is something that came in strongly with mining and urbanisation. The same way we became dependent on maize meal, we can become dependent on rice and other grains and sources of starch. But this will require some effort from government and other agencies. The Zambian people need to be prepared for a future that is not dependent on maize meal, but on other foodstuffs which we can grow cheaply and provide to our people in abundance. In addition to rice, sorghum, millet and cassava, we have sweet potatoes and other tubers and nuts.

The world prices for maize are continually rising and it will soon become very difficult to force our farmers to sell their maize locally at such low prices instead of them exporting. We are producing enough maize and mealie-meal, but the good part of it goes to Congo and Angola. Smuggling will be impossible to stop given the nature of our borders. And as long as the price across the border is good, smuggling will not stop. And with smuggling, shortages will continue. Good prices across the border will also push millers to continually attempt to increase their margins. This will mean every year, every now and then, the president will have to blackmail millers to reduce their prices. Is this the way to run an economy? Is this the most rational way to manage the food security of our people?

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