Economic crisis could halt hunger reduction gains

Economic crisis could halt hunger reduction gainsRising inflation and drops in foreign investment, exports and remittances are combining with high food prices to increase the number of Ghanaians vulnerable to food insecurity, the World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization say in a joint assessment.

The impact could halt the progress Ghana has made in reducing hunger and poverty, says Jean-Martin Bauer, WFP food market specialist.

Ghana is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to have halved hunger and poverty – one of the Millennium Development Goals for 2015. The number of undernourished people dropped from 5.4 million in 1990 to 1.9 million in 2005; the UN says the number has decreased by half since 2000 when the MDGs were launched.

“Ghana has shown that real progress against hunger, malnutrition and poverty can be achieved, through increased investment and diversity in agriculture, and better access to food,” said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf in a 23 April statement. “But Ghana will need greater support in identifying and helping the millions of people who remain food insecure and vulnerable.”

“The economic crisis is already starting to affect people in Africa. The early impacts in Ghana are small, but they could get worse depending on how the situation evolves,” Bauer said.

Price drops in cash crops such as shea nuts, export drops in some raw materials including timber, and remittance cuts could all contribute to people’s increased vulnerability to food insecurity, says WFP.

“Safe” in the short term

But chief director at the Agriculture Ministry, Dr. Nurah Gyiele, said Ghanaians are “safe” from food insecurity this year. “I do not anticipate any clear and present danger on any significant scale in terms of food shortages because we still have maize stocks on the market,” he said. “And there is no shortage in any of the other crops [rice, yams, cassava]…we can say that this year we are safe and even if there is a challenge we will be up to it.”

The government has placed 900 metric tons of emergency rice and maize stocks in the regions where people are most prone to food insecurity: Northern Region, Upper East and Upper West, and plans to provide a further 900 mt over the course of 2009 as well as stocking the 10 regional capitals, according to Gyiele.

But some subsistence farmers in the north say they are already struggling to get by.

Northerners struggling

“The price of everything has gone up,” said John Akarebo, shea nut farmer and father of six, in Northern region. “I spend about 80 percent of my earnings feeding the family. It is very difficult. If it were not for the government’s policy to make basic education free, my children’s education would be threatened.”

Food represents on average up to 20 percent of consumer spending in industrialised nations but as much as 80 percent in developing countries, according to the FAO-WFP statement.

The price of staple foods such as maize, rice and cassava, has remained high in Ghana, despite a good 2008 harvest, says WFP market specialist Bauer.

A variety of factors contribute, including high food production costs and transport costs in 2008 partly linked to high oil prices, Bauer said.
Akarebo’s family members are reducing the number of meals they eat in preparation for the lean season. “I will cut down meals from two to one, and my wives and children from three to two… that is the only way we can sustain ourselves,” he said.

More rice, maize

Boosting food production is central to the government’s food security strategy and Ghana has made progress in that regard, agriculture director Gyiele said. Ghanaians produce a surplus of cassava, enough yams and plantains and almost enough maize to meet the 22-million population’s food needs.

But farmers produce just half of the country’s 300,000 mt rice consumption, and need to boost maize by 300,000 mt to reach 1.5 million mt per year, said Gyiele.

“We have put in place pragmatic measures to achieve these targets…last year when there was panic in other countries…we assured the nation we had enough food and …we did not come to a crisis situation where we had to release our stocks.”
Overall, the ministry projects the agriculture sector will grow at 5.7 percent in 2009.

On standby

Meanwhile UN agencies and NGOs are closely monitoring the food security and nutrition situation and are ready to respond should either deteriorate, Bauer said.

At the peak of the lean season WFP and FAO will enhance their ongoing malnutrition and recovery programme, targeting half a million people; the programme includes building up families’ household income by helping them plant market gardens and digging irrigation ditches so they can plant year-round, said Bauer.

WFP recommends the government boost its social protection networks, including its WFP-supported school feeding programme, if food security worsens.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) plans to re-launch nutrition project they piloted in the north in 2007 with non-profit Catholic Relief Services, treating 4,500 severely malnourished children with ready-to-use-food ‘Plumpy’Nut’, said Joanne Greenfield, UNICEF’s head of health and nutrition in Accra.

And UNICEF is also supporting the Ghana Health Service scale up a project for breast-feeding promotion, food fortification and complementary feeding in the north.

Source: IRIN