While commissioning the N50 billion new Flour Mills sugar plant in Niger State on February 15, President Muhammadu Buhari said that his government’s agricultural vision ‘continues to be a country that grows what it eats.’
The president is not saying this for the first time. It has become, for the government and its officials, a common refrain that Nigeria should grow what it consumes.
The impression, which I am not sure if that is what the government is aiming at, is to create an economy that is self-sufficient, at least, in the area of agriculture, specifically food production.
Many of us, post-independence children, grew up with the stories of how there were groundnut pyramids in Kano, cocoa mountains in Ibadan and 100s of yam barns in the South East.
The common explanation of why this is no longer the case is that after the country found oil in 1958 in commercial quantities, it neglected agriculture and consequently, these ‘good old days’ when we were self-sufficient in all these things vanished.
This explanation conveniently ignores the fact that changing dynamics in global trade, changes in climate and taste, could also have contributed in the dearth of the country’s groundnut pyramids.
Apparently, the aim of this government is to return the country to those good old days. On the surface, this quest for self-sufficiency in food production looks like a great idea, until you dig a little bit deeper.
Which country in the world is really self-sufficient in food production?
Interestingly, the countries with the biggest food import bills globally are also the biggest exporters of food and food products.
The United States, the world’s largest economy, also has the highest food import bill which stood at US$133 billion in 2016.
The US is closely followed by China with a food import bill of US$105.26 billion and then Germany with a food import bill of US$98.90 billion.
The other countries that are on the list are Japan with a food import bill of US$68.86 billion, UK with a food import bill of US$66.54 billion, Netherlands with a food import bill of US$64.38 billion, France with a food import bill of US$62.29 billion, Italy (US$51.34 billion), Belgium (US$40.87 billion) and the Russian federation with a food import bill of US$38.60 billion.
It is also interesting that most of the countries mentioned as top food importers above also rank among top exporters of food and food products globally.
The United States top the list of food exporting countries globally with total value of food exports put at US$149 billion in 2014. Netherlands ranked second with total value of exports in 2014 at US$93 billion.
Other countries that are top exporters and importers of food include; Germany, China, France, Italy, Belgium among others.
What this data clearly shows is that being a high food importing country does not necessarily mean that you are a food insecure country or that you do not have a thriving agricultural sector.
A country does not have to grow what it eats. It just has to grow its economy in such a way, that a thriving agriculture sector is just a fraction of the total economy.
An example is the United States, which despite being the largest food exporting country in the world, earnings from agriculture does not make the cut on its top 10 sources of export income. Machines, engines and other high value items top the list.
Netherlands, the second largest food exporter in the world has as its top exports refined petroleum products, yes refined petroleum products, which the country earned US$34.4 billion from in 2016.
This is almost equivalent to what Nigeria earned from the exports of crude unrefined petroleum products in the same year.
Incidentally, Nigeria is one of the biggest importers of refined petroleum products from Europe. The second biggest source of export earnings for Netherlands is computers. Netherlands earned US$14.3 billion from computer sales in 2016 and another US$13.5 billion from packaged medicaments in the same year.
Netherlands total export earnings in 2016 stood at US$435 billion, about the size of Nigeria’s GDP and which is higher than the combined US$433 billion earned by all the members of OPEC in 2016, or the paltry US$28 billion that Nigeria earned from exports within the same period, 95% of which came from exports of crude oil.
Realistically, we cannot grow everything we eat as a country. There are so many food crops that we eat that will not thrive in the country because of weather and soil conditions.
So a more realistic focus should be to grow what we are very good at growing based on weather, soil conditions and cultural affinity and not necessarily for the purpose of eating but for the purpose of exporting.
The big question should be; what can we successfully grow, process and exports?
There are existing big players in the food exports market with better seed and crop management technology.
Where can we fit successfully in the global agricultural value chain? Import substitution is great but is it the best strategy?
Are we maximising the use of our land and financial resources?
The danger of the current vision of wanting to grow almost everything we eat or consume is a tendency to focus on too many things in the agricultural sector, which have also resulted in the imposition of several import restriction policies even on items that we have not proven our capacity to locally grow.
We are doing rice, sugar, cassava, potatoes, palm oil, rubber and so many others at the same time. Each focus gains momentum and then naturally fizzles out under a new administration or just simply runs out of steam.
Meanwhile, there are other critical areas of the economy, like refining of petroleum products, tapping into our huge gas reserves or redirecting energy of the countries youth into technology and innovation that could do with even more attention and resources.
By Anthony Osae-Brown