Interview with Dr Papa Abdoulaye Seck, Director General of the Africa Rice Center, on food crisis
(15 April 2010)
Dr Seck warns of the continent’s continuing vulnerability to food crises and describes vigorous measures being taken to strengthen domestic production.
Q: The food price crisis of 2008, while impacting people around the world, hit Africa’s rice consumers especially hard. Is the crisis now behind them?
Dr Seck: Even though major food riots have subsided, the food crisis is far from over in sub-Saharan Africa. In many countries, rice prices in local retail markets have stayed well above their pre-crisis levels, even as international prices have declined.
The basic ingredients exist for another episode like that in 2008. Global rice stocks are low, and El Niño threatens rice production in countries like Thailand and the Philippines. Moreover, despite significant increases in domestic cereal production in many countries during 2008 and 2009, Africa continues to depend heavily on food aid and global cereal markets for its leading food staples, rice and maize.
Until the continent’s production of these crops increases, and as long as a large share of its population remains food insecure and undernourished (30% compared to 16% in Asia), it will remain vulnerable to recurring food crises. In fact, humanitarian agencies already warn that a food crisis is unfolding in the Sahel, particularly in Niger and Chad.
Q: Great hardship caused by the crisis unleashed a wave of renewed concern about agriculture and promises of stronger support for agricultural research. What evidence have you seen that the international community is making good on its promises?
Dr Seck: First, African countries must be commended for the bold steps they have taken. In line with the Maputo resolution, several have increased their budget allocations to agriculture since 2003, and there is evidence of further increases since the 2008 food crisis.
There are also positive signs of increased support for agriculture from the international community. Recent figures published by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) indicate that total net ODA (official development assistance) from donors belonging to OECD’s Development Assistance Committee rose in real terms by 0.7% in 2009.
The OCDE report also indicates that in 2009, net bilateral ODA to Africa reached US$28 billion, representing an increase of 3% in real terms over 2008. Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden all exceeded the United Nations ODA target of 0.7% of gross national income.
Since the food crisis, AfricaRice has received substantial support from member states and donors to implement several emergency rice research and development projects. The US government provided our Center with a $5.1 million grant for a 2-year emergency program to boost rice production in Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal. Japan subsequently provided $4.8 million for emergency seed production projects in 21 countries. Other donors reallocated some of their project funds to support an emergency rice initiative. Under this same initiative, the Spanish government is channeling funds through FAO for emergency rice projects in five countries.
Q: How are new resources being put to use and with what results so far?
Dr Seck: In response to the 2008 rice crisis, many member states implemented policies and projects to facilitate smallholder farmers’ access to subsidized certified seed and productivity-enhancing inputs, like fertilizer and farm machinery. In Mali, for instance, pubic investments in the rice sector reached $85 million in 2008 and $106 million in 2009.
Such measures have resulted in substantial increases in Africa’s rice production. According to the FAO Rice Monitor, production grew by 18% between 2007 and 2008. Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and Uganda all recorded double-digit increases in national rice production. Especially notable was the 241% increase achieved in Burkina Faso. In West Africa’s Sahel region as a whole, production rose by 44% in 2008. For the 2009-2010 crop season, FAO is projecting double-digit growth in rice production for several countries.
Q: What measures are needed to better shield the region’s rice sector against future price volatility?
Dr Seck: Price volatility is inherent to the agriculture sector because of its strong dependence on weather. But sub-Saharan African can reduce its exposure to global rice market shocks by increasing regional production and by reducing dependence on rice imports. Improving access to improved rice varieties and to other productivity-enhancing inputs, expanding the area under sustainable water control and enhancing post-harvest and marketing systems are some of the key measures needed to stimulate domestic rice production.
Q: To what degree has the 2008 crisis made policy makers in the region more aware of the rice sector’s needs and potential? What are they doing, or should they do, to strengthen rice production?
Dr Seck: The 2008 rice crisis reminded African policy makers that reliable and affordable supplies of staple foods are critical for maintaining political and social stability. Many African countries have pledged to achieve self-sufficiency in the production of food, particularly rice. At the regional level, this crop has been singled out as a priority for investment. Many countries have taken bold policy measures, such as widening access to credit; accelerating the rehabilitation of irrigated rice areas; and providing subsidies on seeds, fertilizers and farm machinery. Countries are also strengthening the institutional capacity of their agricultural extension and research systems.