COVID19, In Nigeria, more of hunger than anything

The full moon looks like burnt breadSukanta Bhattacharya

The old English reverend Thomas Malthus was wrong when he wrote that, for eternity, food production would grow arithmetically (1-2-3-4) and that populations would grow geometrically (1-2-4-8), with the needs of the population easily outstripping the ability of humans to produce food. When Malthus wrote his treatise in 1789, there were about a billion people on the planet. There are now almost eight billion people, and yet scientists tell us that more than enough food is produced to be able to feed everyone. Nonetheless, there is hunger. Why?

On 21 April, the head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) David Beasley said that the world was experiencing a ‘hunger pandemic’. That day, the Global Network Against Food Crises and the Food Security Information Network released the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises. It suggested that 318 million people in 55 countries experience acute food insecurity and are on the cusp of acute hunger. This number is a gross underestimate: the actual number – before the global pandemic – would have been closer to 2.5 billion, if you measure hunger by caloric intake for intense activity.

The reasons for this hunger, they say, are armed conflict, extreme weather, and economic turbulence. More people could slip into the situation of acute food insecurity, the report says, as a result of a ‘shock or stressor, such as the Covid-19 pandemic’. Half of the world’s population fears to go hungry as a result of the pandemic. Nigeria, amongst the reasons highlighted, include that fact that we ate our years of fat, and now that they the lean years are virtually in front of us, more than any time, the hunger looms even larger.

What the International Monetary Fund calls the Great Lockdown has sent 2.7 billion people, according to the International Labour Organization, into either full unemployment or near unemployment, with many people one or two days away from desperate poverty and hunger. Starvation is already evident in many regions of the world. Nigeria is not an exemption, mass sack looms, and in some cases has started, for those that have a form of savings, they are spending and nothing is coming in, and investments are bleak.

Hunger stalks Nigeria because so many people are dispossessed. If you do not have access to land, in the countryside or the city, you cannot produce your own food. If you have land but no access to seed and fertilizer, your capacities as a farmer are constrained. If you have no land and do not have money to buy food, you starve.

That’s the root problem. It is simply not addressed by the bourgeois political order according to which money is god, land – rural and urban – is allocated through the market, and food is just another commodity from which capital seeks to profit. When modest food distribution programmes are implemented to stave off widespread famine, they often function as state subsidies for a food system captured, from the corporate farm to the supermarket, by capital.

Over the past decades, the production of food has been enveloped into a global supply chain. Farmers cannot simply take their produce to market; they must sell it into a system that processes, transports, and then packages food for sale at a variety of retail outlets. Even this is not so simple, as the world of finance has enmeshed the farmer into speculation.

If there is any shock to the system, the entire chain collapses and farmers are often forced to burn or bury their food rather than allow it to be eaten. So here in Jos, Plateau farmers are destroying their products such as tomatoes, while Lagosians cannot have access to the same tomatoes.

If you listen to agricultural workers, farmers, and social movements around, you will find that they have lessons to teach us about how the system should be reorganized during this crisis. It is a mix of emergency measures that can be immediately implemented and more long-term measures that can build towards sustained food security, and then food sovereignty – in other words, popular control over the food system.

Enact emergency food distribution. Surplus stocks of food controlled by governments must be turned over to combat hunger. Governments must use their considerable resources to feed the people.

Expropriate surpluses of food held by agribusiness, supermarkets, and speculators, and turn this over to the food distribution system. Feed the people. It is not enough to distribute groceries. Governments, alongside public action, must build chains of community kitchens where people can access food. Places like Lagos, Kano and other big cities can and should do this.

Demand government support of farmers who face challenges to harvest their crops; governments must ensure that harvesting takes place following World Health Organization principles of safety. Demand living wages for agricultural workers, farmers, and others, regardless of whether they are able to work or not during the Great Lockdown. This must be sustained after the crisis. There is no sense in looking at workers as essential during an emergency and then disdaining their struggles for justice in a time of ‘normalcy’.

Encourage financial support for farmers to grow food crops rather than turn to large-scale production of non-food cash crops. Millions of poor farmers in Nigeria produce cash crops that the richer nations cannot grow in their climate zones; it is tough to grow pepper or coffee in Sweden. The World Bank ‘advised’ the poorer nations to focus on cash crops to earn dollars, but this has not helped any of the small farmers who do not grow enough to support their families. These farmers, like their communities and the rest of humanity, need food security.

Reconstruct food supply chains to be based on regions, states, and local governments rather than on just global distribution. Ban speculation of food by curbing derivatives and the futures market. Communities should have direct control over the food system where they live.

The fact that so many people around Nigeria, including those living in the so-called rich states, were going hungry before this crisis is a profound indictment of the failures of governance, government and leadership. The fact that hunger is exploding exponentially during this crisis is a further indictment of our nation as a whole. Hunger is among the most urgent of human needs, and immediate steps need to be taken to get food to people in this crisis. But it is also vital that the social value of land, rural and urban; the means to produce food, such as seeds and fertilizer; and the food itself is affirmed and defended against the socially ruinous logic of commodification and profit.

Let me end, by saying that our leaders will not read this, if they do, they would not act on it, if they would, of the many actions they might take, may include arresting me. For a group of people that would charge her citizens money to bring them back home, for leadership that does not know where the Chinese doctors are, for a community of states that cannot feed her people, for a nation where state governors’ pride themselves in their capacity to lock out other states, and distribute alamjiri kids, a people that are bent on the great lockdown when the world is desperately trying to open, our full moon may soon become burnt bread, unless we act fast, because hunger may be the uprising that will bring out the beast in us—Only time will tell.

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