High prices of food imports may leave people hungry

Food monitors are concerned that people in West African countries who rely on international imports of wheat and rice are going to struggle to buy enough to eat this year due to high commodity prices.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) said in a bulletin released on 7 November that poor global production of wheat means worldwide prices reached a record high in September 2007 and remained volatile in October.

Rice prices have also risen steadily since January 2007 according to the FAO, and high fuel prices have added higher shipping costs into the equation.

“Rarely has the world felt such a widespread and commonly shared concern about food price inflation, a fear which is fuelling debates about the future direction of agricultural commodity prices in importing as well as exporting countries, be they rich or poor,” the bulletin said.

“We’re concerned,” said Henri Josserand, head of the FAO’s early warning unit in Rome. “We see that prices are going to be quite high and that’s going to mean that there are big problems of access [to food] for people in some West African countries this year.”

Countries of concern

Mauritania and Senegal are the two countries in the region which rely the most on international markets rather than domestic farming. Wheat is a staple food in both but all of it is imported.

Mauritania grows just 30 percent of the food its 3 million people need and imported wheat prices have exploded by over 75 percent there this year, from US$200 for a ton to US$356, according to the food monitoring group FEWSNET.

Wheat is used to feed humans and animals in Mauritania. “The main reason people moved to eating wheat was because it was less expensive. It became very important in basic diets,” said Salif Sow, Sahel representative of FEWSNET.

“Not only has it been imported for many years, it has also been given out free in general food distributions, and subsidised. If the price continues as it is, people will need to switch to local cereals, or they simply won’t have access to food.”

In Senegal, the government has cut import tariffs on wheat yet there has still been a 12 percent increase in the cost of bread in the last month.

Poor production

According to FEWSNET, the situation is being compounded in Senegal and Mauritania and in northern Nigeria by poor harvest of millet, sorghum and maize which are the traditional cereals grown in the region.

In northern Nigeria, sorghum production was curtailed by an early end to the rainy season, while in Mauritania, Senegal and Nigeria rains started too late in the year for maize to grow well.

Other countries in West Africa have not experienced the same problems and production of traditional cereals in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger has been average or above average.

But Guinea Bissau, where imported rice is a staple, is a concern. The World Food Programme has warned that prices for rice have increased by 40 percent in 2007 compared to 2006.

“We need to closely monitor the impact of the high prices,” Sow said.

Regional markets

The immediate concerns are currently limited to the wheat and rice importing countries, but experts say a potential production deficit in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, could trigger a wider regional crisis later in the year.

“Reduced crop production in northern Nigeria might have serious implications for prices in the region and this would really complicate the situation,” said Jean Senahoun, West Africa Economist at the FAO in Rome.

Even countries with good harvests could have food shortages, he said. “Good harvests in one country in West Africa does not necessarily mean food security for the people that live there as West Africa’s highly integrated markets mean food moves freely from one country to another.”

Good production in Niger coupled with a deficit in Nigeria would means a large part of the grain grown in Niger will pass over the border, and Niger could be left with a shortage as happened in the major crisis in 2005.

In that instance, much of the grain grown in Niger was found to have been used to feed chickens in some of Nigeria’s vast chicken farms, even as people starved in Niger.

“Although production is adequate in some places [in West Africa], if there is a huge problem in Nigeria the region might still face problems,” Senahoun said.

nr/dh