FOOD POLICY AND ITS CHALLENGES
A Conversation with Fabien Tondel
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia - and the ensuing war - has brought food prices back into the news. This is happening on the back of the Covid-19 global pandemic that also disrupted the food supply chain, causing shortages and rising prices in many countries. So how should countries set national food policies in the face of risks and uncertainties? This is the subject of my conversation with agricultural economist Fabien Tondel. He is a researcher and Policy Officer with the European Centre for Development Policy Management - an independent think tank with a focus on making development policy work in Europe and Africa.
Fabien's work encompasses research on agri-food value chain development, rural development and food security in Africa, and building sustainable food systems. The background to our conversation is this report (which Fabien co-wrote) on the rice value chain in West Africa. Rice is a staple in the region, it’s a commodity that has been at the heart of diverse food policy approaches (see this essay on the politics of rice policy in Ghana and Nigeria) from Nigeria to Ghana and Senegal. Fabien and I covered many of the subtle but familiar themes in food policy - like the difference between food security and self-sufficiency, whether there is a dilemma in using policy to protect producers or consumers, and the ever-present threat of food inflation.
The transcript for the conversation is available below, and you can listen to this and many of our episodes on all popular podcast vendors.
I mean, like you and I were discussing earlier, a lot of the issues we tried to talk about last year, particularly in the report that was released by your institution back then on rice and the rice value chain.
But not just that, food policy and production, particularly in Africa, West Africa, generally, are even more relevant today, because a lot has happened, some of the effects from the pandemic policies are really feeding into the system.
We are seeing the rise in prices, we are seeing a lot of shortages, we are seeing a lot of supply chain problems. So, I think it's even more relevant to be having this conversation right now.
I would like to start by asking you...it might sound a bit trivial, but in your reports released last year, why rice? I'm asking this against the background of Nigeria.
Currently, the government is also talking about rice, I mean, it is towards the end of the year, there is a lot of anti-importation reaction from the policy circles. So, I guess, out of sheer curiosity, why Rice, rice is a bit of a political... we call it a political crop here in Nigeria.
So why focus on rice, if you can answer that for me briefly?
Yes, Tobi. Rice is a highly politically charged product in many countries, in African countries, as well as in other parts of the world. Rice is an increasingly important part of the diet of African country populations, particularly in urban centers, where consumers enjoy this product because of its quality in terms of food, its taste, and also the ease of preparation, households find it very practical.
And we've seen the consumption of rice increasing rapidly in African countries over the past decades, including in Nigeria. So, this is not a new phenomenon. We have seen it coming now for several decades, and at the same time, the policymakers have put a lot of emphasis on increasing rice production with the idea of satisfying the needs of their populations, with the idea of attaining self-sufficiency.
Because up until now, imports of rice coming largely from Asian producers, but also from other countries have played a big role in satisfying the needs of these populations. And so, policymakers have found themselves in a difficult spot to satisfy the needs of the important critical needs of the population, but at the same time to deliver on the promises to boost domestic rice production as part of agricultural development strategies.
So yes, it's a very important product politically. And we see that these issues, a bit, come to the surface in times of crisis. We saw it in 2008, during the global economic, financial, and food price crisis.
And to a certain extent, we've also seen it during the COVID crisis, with uncertainties in international markets, disruptions in international supply chains, but also domestic food supply chains in many parts of the world that have raised concerns among policymakers, but also, in practical terms, made the life of many people more difficult by lifting food prices.
So yes, I think it's still a very good time to talk about this.
And again, this is the background I'm coming from here. Because I mean, I'm going to be substituting rice policies with agriculture policies a lot. So, Nigeria typically promotes agricultural development as part of pursuing food security.
Usually, the go-to policy is to ban importation. But we know it raises food inflation, which has been the experience of Nigerian consumers, and I think even in the region to a certain extent. So, it raises food inflation, food prices go up, either generally or even for that particular product. And then secondly, we don't see much increase in domestic production capacity for that particular product or for food generally.
So, I guess my first question on that area would be, what other policy choices do you think exist for policymakers other than this policy of banning the importation, which does not really increase output, and at the same time raises domestic prices for food, which makes even the poorer household more vulnerable?
To answer your question, we have to consider the specificities of Nigeria. And also, the more general situation in West Africa and beyond Nigeria is significantly dependent on the importation of a number of processed goods, including processed food.
So, I think it's good to say that the importation of rice from the point of view of certain policymakers also concerns other products - cooking oil, processed foods, etc. But again, because of the importance of rice for the typical households, including low-income households, I think there's a particular issue of rice.
At the same time, the government of Nigeria has been very active over the years in promoting the production of rice. And it's still good to know also that there's a large part of the rice consumed in Nigeria comes from Nigeria. [Rice] is produced in different parts of the country, in particular, in the north and central parts of the country. And there's been progress in production.
The question is, how far to go in promoting rice production? Is it economically efficient? Does it benefit rural households and farmers? What is the opportunity cost also of investing in rice production? In the end, you know, what is the best approach to support food security?
I think just to go back also, I think to your first question about the study that we conducted, I should say that it all comes from the 2008 food price crisis. And sorry to go back to the past, but I think we should remind the auditors that this crisis caused serious concerns for policymakers, particularly in Western Africa, with the high prices and the protests in some places that it led to.
And following these events, policymakers invested a lot of effort in improving rice production in African countries and in pursuing self-sufficiency. And we'll come back to it but there's a number of tools that are relevant for promoting agricultural development.
But this situation of high import dependency raises the question of the role of trade policies. And not to conclude before analyzing the problems that trade is the main problem or too liberal policies; not protectionist enough is the problem or that, on the contrary, we should rely even more on trade.
But our work really aimed to understand the role of trade policy amongst many factors in ensuring food security and Agricultural and Rural Development, and how this factor - this trade factor - played out in different contexts in the region, and then what policy implication we can draw from that.
Now allow me to come back quickly to the case of Nigeria, which I find fascinating. I think we should say also that rice importation also takes place in a particular context, I think the Nigerian government has always been somewhat protective of its domestic market. And there's a rationale for that. And provided that at the same time there's a strong commitment and also an economic rationale for protecting the investments of farmers and industrial actors in this sector.
But while Nigeria was more protective than its neighboring countries, this has also had the effect of diverting trade flows with certain quantities of rice still entering the country perhaps in more informal ways. I think we know that in West Africa, borders are largely porous. There's a lot of informal trade, which is, of course, a fact it's not good or bad. But this reality also has played a role in the Nigerian reactions in the trade policy area.
We know that other countries in Western Africa have quite different policies than the Nigerian government. And again, this is not necessarily good or bad, it's a fact. But this raises the question of the policy coordination amongst Western African countries to attain food security and rural development objectives.
Now, the import ban imposed by the Nigerian governments perhaps two years ago, which has lasted for some time has led to some disruption in the Nigerian market, in the rice market in particular. And as you were hinting, there's been a rise in rice prices [and] also in the context of a general inflation trend.
And these rising prices, of course, have undermined the purchasing power of urban households. At the same time, the Nigerian government has been very active in supporting rice farmers, and the central bank has played an important role in making available money to access fertilizer and other inputs, and also to help farmers sell their rice.
So, a lot of public support may also have contributed to some extent to inflation trends. And indeed, we see that this policy has had some impacts, some different impacts on different segments of the population. With farmers, at least, in some areas being relatively happy. But of course, urban households [are] suffering from the price increases and general inflation.
So, I think it's in this context, also, that we should discuss the role of trade policies. Which again, I think should be a nuanced discussion looking at the different aspects of it.
So, talking about trade policies and around agricultural development of food policy generally, one thing that usually comes up in my conversation with people, and I've also read or heard so many people argue this point is the issue of domestic producers versus consumers, you know, like some kind of dilemmas that countries face on whose interests you should protect.
As you pointed out, through the CBN and various other schemes here in Nigeria, there has been a lot of support for domestic production, in terms of credit facilities, in terms of access to fertilizers, and all that. But sometimes you hear retailers and so many people who are involved in rice particularly will tell you that the market price for rice is double what the price of rice is at the border. So, it is from the border to Nigeria that over half of the price of rice gets added.
And now, my thinking is that we really don't see the government do enough domestically in other areas beyond simply supporting cultivation, other supply issues like storage and transportation, which raises domestic prices, which they do not make domestic producers’ price competitive with importers, we don't see a lot of emphasis on this issue.
So, I want to ask you, why is that? Is it because these are big problems to solve generally, or because policymakers do not realize that these are problems? Right. So, I guess, ultimately, my point would be that, should domestic consumers pay higher prices to support producers?
Because I know that urban consumers particularly are a good source of income for a lot of farmers. So, is this a policy that should be sustained or even actively maintained? Or is there a way to make this a not so difficult adjustment for all involved, including producers and consumers? That's a bit of a long question so don't mind me.
It's a long question, but it's a complex problem, also. So, I think it's normal to ask it in this way. I think you're talking about a dilemma for policymakers that is seen almost everywhere. Consumers would like to have low food prices, because it's such an important part of their budget, while farmers like to have high prices for agricultural and food products, because it's their revenue, and they need to compensate for their cost.
So, there are two things. I think there can be in the short run, perhaps, some imbalance provided that these high prices entice farmers to invest more to increase the supply which should lead then to a decrease in prices which will also be beneficial to consumers.
But the problem is not as simple because as you said, between the farmer and the household, there are a lot of steps to aggregate, process, and distribute the food products. And what I am talking [about] here is what we call the value chain.
And so, we see that to actually expand the supply of the products, but also to ensure that the quality of these products satisfies the needs and the preferences of the consumer, there is a need for investments in enterprises that will move the products from the farms to the markets, that will process, package and distribute the products.
For this to happen, public investment is needed in infrastructure, in roads, in rural areas, in physical markets, in skills, also, to ensure that the sanitary and phytosanitary standards are followed to ensure certain quality norms. And of course, all of these are important for the quality and the safety of the food.
And all these different steps in the value chain often depend on multiple different policy areas that need to be coordinated for this value chain to develop. And that's perhaps a bit the technical side of things. In the reality, there are also [the] political and business interests that play a role in the planning and the implementation of these investments.
So, it's a complex problem that requires coordination of policies, but also different actors with sometimes diverging business and political interests to work together to develop the whole value chain. And this is not just a problem from Nigeria, because for every country at every stage of development, the context, the technology, trade relations, the market, the preferences of consumers evolve, and it requires adapting the supply chains to these changes.
So, in this case, and I can't, you know, talk too much about how well or not Nigerian policies are doing to support the development of these value chains. But yes, perhaps, we could say that a lot of attention has been given to supporting rice farmers, and also in investing in processing units. But it's probably not been enough to develop strong linkages between farmers, processors, and distributors, and in the end with urban markets, for various reasons.
And also because of some limitations, a processor needs paddy of a certain quality at a certain time, fulfilling certain criteria to process it efficiently and to break even with its investment cost. A distributor, a trader, also has some constraints. If it's going to distribute local rice to sell it to supermarkets or to street markets, it needs to fulfill certain deals in certain quantities, which he might not be able to do if the linkages higher up in the supply chains are not solid enough. If he does not receive enough rice of a certain quality to fulfil his own contracts.
If not, he might actually prefer to import and distribute rice produced in Asia that has a certain quality and for which also the shipments can come quickly and surely. So, we see also how the incentives of all these actors across the value chain play a role. And so, like other sectors, I think the government has a difficult task to do to develop these value chains, and also some choices to be made about to what extent to rely on imported rice versus domestically produced rice.
Okay, I'll get to my second dilemma in a bit. But to focus more on your last point is, how can countries better increase output? Should they focus more on these linkages in the value chain that you speak of?
Because what we see in terms of policy responses is a lot of policy support goes into farming and land cultivation itself. And we have seen the limitations of that in terms of increasing output because, of course, it's a complex problem and there are other areas that are not fulfilling their promise in terms of linkages.
On the other hand, policy support can be limited because of the balance of payment crisis that we know that some of these countries like Nigeria suffer. Public resources are not infinite. So, my question essentially is, if the government has to prioritize public support for agricultural development for domestic production, where is it better to focus a lot on resources, knowledge, and support?
Yes, Tobi. So, I start by saying that there is a consensus among experts and other actors that there's a potential for growth in the rice sector in West Africa, and perhaps even in Nigeria. And this growth can be attained in particular by raising yields and productivity in the production, processing, and distribution of rice.
And raising yields is, of course, the key for many agricultural products. And it requires investment in the management of land, in inputs, improved seeds, in particular for rice; and mechanization, skills, and also in processes to reduce post-harvest losses beyond the farm. That's critical for the development of the sector.
At the same time, policymakers should not lose sight of broader objectives. In the end, what matters is for farmers and rural populations to have better living conditions to have higher income and access to better public services in rural areas. It also matters to create jobs in and around agri-food value chains.
These value chains can generate a lot of jobs in trading, logistics, in processing. And it also matters to ensure the food security of households. So with these broader objectives in mind - and the rice sector is only a small part of this agricultural and food system.
It's important also to consider the opportunities for diversification away from staple food commodities, because as the middle class is emerging in Nigeria and other West African countries, as consumers, urban consumers especially gained purchasing power, as we tell also people to eat more fruits and vegetables for health reasons, new economic opportunities appear for farmers and agri-food value chain actors in sectors that are more profitable than rice, probably.
So of course, I'm thinking about horticultural products, spices, livestock products, pulses which can provide proteins... and in these sectors, the returns on investment for [not only] farmers, but also for other actors in the value chain can be higher than for rice.
So that is something... rice is important, you know, this is what we were saying at the beginning. But the problem of rice has to be seen in the broader context of the agricultural and food systems.
And perhaps there is a role to play for trade, for imports, to balance the supply and the consumption in a country like Nigeria... letting farmers but also policymakers invest more resources in these other value chains that are more profitable for all these sectors.
Going further on that I want to ask you, especially relevant to this conversation, there is also the talk of industrial policy. A lot of domestic agricultural policies take place within the context of domestic industrial policies for countries. I know Nigeria has been on that path for the last six years.
My question then would be, what role do exports play in food policy generally? Isn’t the better path to development through exports, and relying maybe slightly more on imports of staple food commodities, such as rice, rather than focus on growing domestically, I mean, rice, what are your thoughts?
Yes, I think perhaps, just to make sure that we understand each other and that also it's clear to our auditors, there is a rationale for ensuring that a certain part of a population's need for food is supplied by the country's farmers and domestic supply chains.
We see also that in less favourable times, like during the food price crisis, the instability of international markets can disrupt domestic markets. But it's only one consideration among others. It also has to be based on the other opportunities for the domestic economy to grow and to lead to shared prosperity.
And so, countries have to think also about the way they participate in the international economy, if not the regional economy. And they should not think, at least in our times, of that. So of course, exports are very important to create economic opportunities for domestic producers to generate foreign earnings because any country has to import certain goods that it cannot produce. And within the agricultural and food sectors, that's also the case.
I think we see today that whether we are in Europe, in Africa, or any other part of the world, on a daily basis, we consume products produced somewhere else. And by that, I don't mean that this is the most efficient and sustainable way of securing our food security. But I think it's a reality to start with.
And so, for Nigerian farmers and the broader Nigerian economy, it's important to be competitive in some sectors that produce exports and generates foreign earnings for tropical products that grow well in Nigeria, perhaps for specialty products, some fruits, and vegetables, cacao, perhaps coffee, medicinal plants, anything, you name it, I think it's important for Nigeria, also to export.
And it is also the earnings from the exports that can allow the country to import the staple food commodities that it cannot produce so that policymakers can ensure stable markets and stable access to food for vulnerable households. So, I think, taking into account this reality, that we should think about policy choices, that doesn't mean that we should not change or, you know, actors should not think about the change.
Again, there is perhaps a good economic rationale for increasing the production of rice and other staple foods, provided that it makes economic and social sense. And that it is, importantly, I think we haven't mentioned yet, in line with the boundaries of natural resources, with sustainability criteria.
Because perhaps you might want to discuss this also, rice is a very demanding crop in terms of water, in terms of land, in terms of nutrients, it also generates greenhouse gases. So, we do also have to take these environmental aspects into consideration when promoting such a crop.
In the report, which you co-authored, which is kind of like the background to this conversation, generally. I'm going to put up a link - both the long and short version - in the show notes. You used Senegal as an example of how policy on food and in this case, rice, can evolve productively. So, I mean, for the sake of the audience, can you discuss briefly why Senegal stands out? What did it get right?
Yes, I think that Senegal stands out not only for its policies directed at the rice sector but also in other agricultural and food sectors. In recent years, the Senegalese government made efforts to better regulate agricultural and food markets, and also production. And it has done that, I think, in the context of efforts to modernize the economy while promoting inclusive development.
So perhaps I think without going back to the origin of the story, I think, in Senegal, there was a certain potential to improve, to augment rice production and agricultural policies after 2008 promoted this increase in production. But quickly, policymakers were confronted with the fact that it was difficult for farmers to sell rice, to market their rice.
And so given this now realized production potential, the government had to think about how to facilitate the access of this rice to the market. And of course, there was then the dilemma, I think, what to do in the situation where the imports are so important to fulfil the needs of the populations.
And so, Senegal undertook a process that, for me, is very interesting by bringing together the rice importers and the actors of the domestic value chain to find a way to remedy the problem of difficult sales for locally produced rice. And these actors worked together to promote investments in the local rice value chain, which has produced some positive effects for the farmers and the local value chain actors.
But that relied also on a choice, perhaps a difficult choice, to better control imports of rice to create a room in the market for the locally produced price. So currently, the government is trying to make the import licenses for rice based on the amount of locally produced rice that the wholesalers and the importers buy in a way to couple the imports with local purchases, and so, with investments in the domestic rice sector.
This, of course, is a complex undertaking. It requires a rigorous approach to calculating the cost and benefits. And it's still uncertain to what extent this initiative will succeed. But we think based on our research that it is a very good experience to learn from and to exchange with other countries in the region that would like to develop the rice sector in a sustainable way, from an economic standpoint in particular.
So it is also in the sense that, you know, our study concluded that countries in the ECOWAS area should collaborate more closely with each other to share experiences, to see what works, what doesn't work, for the development of the rice sector. And also, to coordinate their policies, because I come back to the beginning of our conversation, as our analysis showed [and] also as many people know, if one country adopts a certain import policy for rice and if the neighbouring countries have different policies, and the policy of the first one will affect the other ones, because of the transshipment of rice, both formal and informal, that takes place in the region.
So, I wouldn't want, not only to emphasize the example of Senegal, but also the interdependencies between rice policies in the region.
That sort of leads into my next question, because, yeah, you talked about the importance of policy coordination and cooperation, especially in the region, West Africa, a lot in that report. And of course, we know that the African Continental Free Trade Agreement was recently ratified, we know that implementation is not going to be simple. It's a very complex, long process.
So, my question is, I know your organization, the European Center for Development, Policy Management [ECDPM], engages a lot of players on policy, what are you guys doing to make sure that there is better policy coordination and cooperation in the area of food policy?
Yes, it's true, Tobi, that ECDPM is very active as a keen interest in regional economic integration processes, and more generally, regional and continental level cooperation. But I will just say before starting that our ambitions are limited. We are a center based in Europe. And our aim is, I think, primarily to understand economic development dynamics on the African continent, and to facilitate interactions and cooperation between different actors, between European partners, and African actors in particular.
It is, you know, with this approach in mind that we've been working on specific sectors that I think are meaningful from a development point of view, I think it's still the case of the rice sector. But of course, rice, like other commodities are traded in a regional context, we could say that there's probably also some rice being traded across borders, beyond the boundaries of ECOWAS.
I think there is some trade with Cameroon and with Chad and other countries. So that's also why ultimately, it's also a question that's relevant to the process of the African Continental Free Trade Agreements. But I think also the realities of rice trade, as an example, shows the complexity of economic integration, of designing and implementing common trade policies, and of moving towards better integration of economies in a way that is beneficial for different actors in the value chain.
So, I think, already, starting at the level of ECOWAS, it's a relatively old regional organization, which has attained a certain level of maturity. And so, it has a number of sectoral policies that are now relatively well defined, although there's still much to be done in terms of implementation. But I think that's... it's a long-term process, as you said.
And I think we should say that the ECOWAS commission is currently leading an initiative to promote production in the trade of rice in the region in a sustainable way. It's actually one of the flagship initiatives of the ECOWAS in the area of agriculture and food security.
And so, there are a number of aspects in the rice sector that have to be addressed at the regional level, as we said, there is the transshipment of rice across the region. And in some cases, it leads to reactions, like bans on land imports, which is going to have repercussions for other sectors, including those who don't have much to do with rice.
And of course, this can impede the process of regional and continental economic integration. At the same time, rice is a good example...again, there are trade relations within the region that play a role in the development of the domestic rice sector. Locally produced rice is traded within the region. For instance, between Burkina Faso and Mali.
Malian consumers appreciate the organoleptic qualities, I mean, the taste of rice grown and parboiled in Burkina Faso, largely by small-scale women enterprises. And despite the fact that Mali is almost self-sufficient for rice, it still imports from Burkina Faso. And this is not just a curiosity, but it's also an opportunity for the development of regional agri-food value chains that can create jobs, generate more income for farmers and ensure food security.
And of course, that's also a challenge at the continental level. So these processes at the regional level are one part of the puzzle, but they can play a big role in formulating better trade policies, but also in supporting the work at the national level, as in Senegal, with better regulatory frameworks for the agri-food sectors, and also to share experiences and to coordinate with perhaps the ultimate objective being to go towards like a regional market with some common policies, common norms, that can ensure the good functioning of cross border value chains.
So, yes, that's something that we are paying close attention to in partnership with West African think tanks in particular. And I should say that this work of ours that you have mentioned has been done in partnership with IPAR, a think tank based in Senegal and specializing in rural development and food security.
So, given the situation that countries face today and also particularly in the region as you have said, I know we may not quite be in the same situation as the 2008 crisis, but there are familiar currents of the same problem. My question is you work on policy a lot, so what are some of the automatic policy responses or stabilizers that countries can adopt in the interim that does not make the situation worse, both for consumers and producers, and other stakeholders involved in the food value chain?
What policy heuristics or intuitions can policymakers rely on? What tool is available to them to use in a time like this?
You're right, Tobi, that the COVID crisis has generated a number of disruptions that we should learn from to develop more resilience, agri-food systems in particular, and we've seen in a number of countries disruptions in agricultural and food supply chains, which also meant losses of jobs, livelihoods for certain people.
And this also then can really push people back in terms of wellbeing and development. So, the problem of risk management at different levels is probably even more acute after this crisis. But it's good also to see that progress is being made.
And again, if I just keep talking about the agricultural and food sector, at the ECOWAS level, there is an interesting initiative to put in place regional food reserves to deal with instability in the agri-food system at the regional level, and especially also to address emergency needs for food assistance for vulnerable populations.
So, this regional reserve initiative, which is being piloted by the ECOWAS Commission, was developed as part of the ECOWAS agricultural policy. And it has two components, the physical reserve of staple food commodities that can be quickly mobilized to address the need of vulnerable populations. And there's also a financial reserve to procure food products quickly, either in the regional market or elsewhere on the continent, or even in international markets.
To address supply disruptions, this is an important tool that is being developed and that should probably be encouraged in the following years. But that's only one part of the policy instruments to deal with instabilities, with shock.
I think what we see in a number of African countries but even well beyond in the global south and also in more advanced countries is the importance of social protection and public services to deal with difficult times, including in the health sector. So why not a specialist of social protection, I think that there's an important role to play for food assistance, but also cash transfers and other forms of social insurance to ensure that vulnerable populations are not left on their own in very difficult situations - when a crisis hits when it disrupts economic activities when people get sick and can't go to work.
And of course, one of the basic needs is food. So social protection and food policy should work hand in hand to protect livelihoods and well-being.
There are a number of other instruments to deal with risk, to manage risk, I think. We've seen also that part of the problem that you have presented at the beginning is also related to the cost of fertilizer, which has gone up in [the] international market and of course, makes it more difficult for farmers, including in West Africa, to boost production.
What I would say just to conclude is that going back to our example of rice, in the end, it's not so much about attaining self-sufficiency, but it's about managing the vulnerabilities that are due to these interdependencies. Whether it's because of the importation of rice, but also the reliance on exports of extractive commodities, as well as movement of populations and with them of Coronaviruses that can destabilize an economy and, of course, health systems.
You sort of...and I don't know, that has been happening a lot over the course of this conversation, your answer preempted my next question, which is like my final question.
So, it is like a big picture question. What is or are the differences between food security and food self-sufficiency? Because this is a debate that has been going on for a while. And the two get mixed up quite a lot.
So, you are an agricultural economist, you're an economist... some Agric economists have argued that the policies that countries that have a little more access to ports or the coast, that the policies that they adopt around agriculture should be a little bit different from countries that are landlocked... so many issues and it can be quite confusing. So, I want to hear from you, what is the difference? What are the nuances between food security within the context of a national economy and self-sufficiency?
Yes, I think it's a difficult question because there are really different views about how things work behind these two notions. But I think we have to go back to what they mean in the first place.
I think food security is first in outcome about how well people access food of good quality, in conditions that will ensure good nutrition for children, for women, and for men, and certain stability. So, it's a desirable outcome that depends on a multitude of factors.
Now, if we look at self-sufficiency, it's probably seen by policymakers and others as an important means to attain food security. But perhaps it is sometimes confused with an end in itself. And the policy objectives, perhaps, lose sight of the bigger picture and aim to pursue self-sufficiency, even though it's not the best policy that will lead to desirable outcomes.
For rice also, you know, we can question, and if we go back to the beginning of our discussion, to what extent it is a good use of public resources to put so much of them into rice production. And if this rice production is not well channeled to the markets or is risky, because of the agro-climatic conditions in some countries, it can actually be a factor of risk, you know, if we cannot rely on the international market as a result.
So, we should not confuse means and ends. But I will say that the question is actually more complicated than that because agriculture and the food sector play an important role in economic and rural development. Policymakers also look at these objectives, ensuring that out of agricultural production, rural households can generate some income can lift themselves out of poverty, and then perhaps some of them will move to urban areas, etc.
And agriculture is also a sector that plays an important role in the management of natural resources. In taking care of sparsely populated areas, generating economic activities in relation to non-agricultural activities that maintain life and cohesion in rural territories.
So, I think we also have to look at this role, and perhaps behind this objective of self-sufficiency, even though perhaps not everything is well thought through, there's also this intent. Now, I think there's perhaps another motivation that we should mention is that agricultural policies aiming at self-sufficiency is also a way for policymakers to gain the support of rural populations - by way of providing subsidies, resources that will improve their popularity for the next election.
I think we can say that because it is, you know, it's part of the political game. And it is seen everywhere, I think, not just in developing countries, but also in advanced economies. So, but in the end, I think what's important, especially with all this matter of rice, is to look at the broader agricultural and food systems.
And rice self-sufficiency at the national level, you know, if you want my own opinion, based also on my work, it's probably something to be careful with. It might not be the right policy for every country. But I will emphasize the opportunities in the sense that there are other sectors where it's important to invest, you know, where the potential for generating income and job is more important.
At the same time, ensuring a good supply of locally produced rice, which can be of better quality than the imported rice, it's important, but it can be done in cooperation with other countries with a greater role for intraregional or even intra African trade.
At an even higher level, I think it's important while promoting the production of African rice, where it makes economic sense, you know... it's important also to secure access to the international market. Because we don't know what can happen, especially in the context of climate change, a drought, a shortage of water can decimate the rice production in a certain year, in a certain country.
And that country in these circumstances will probably have to rely on the international market to secure the food needs of its population. So, I think we have to keep in mind the multiple factors that contribute to the desired outcome of food security, and also rural development and find the right balance between the different policy objectives.
And that's where I think the importance of regional cooperation, but even more so of, you know, inclusive policy dialogue that takes into account different perspectives is critical to achieving this right balance or, at least, a good enough balance between different policy objectives.
Thank you so much for clarifying that. Bonus question, if I may. We have a bit of a tradition on the show. We call it the one idea. So, what is the one idea that...it may be from your work, it may be from another field which you admire, what's the one idea that excites you so much, you want everybody to know about it, you'd like to see it spread, you'd like to see more people think about it. What is that one idea?
It's a difficult question Tobi, but I think I like this question. I think if I look forward, I think the role of young farmers and entrepreneurs is very important to solve the questions that we are discussing now. Because these entrepreneurs, farmers, you know, represent the future of agriculture. And I think I very much like how you aim also to target them through this podcast, amongst others. And I think that
I have exciting news to share: You can now read Ideas Untrapped in the new Substack app for iPhone.
With the app, you’ll have a dedicated Inbox for my Substack and any others you subscribe to. New posts will never get lost in your email filters, or stuck in spam. Longer posts will never cut-off by your email app. Comments and rich media will all work seamlessly. Overall, it’s a big upgrade to the reading experience.
The Substack app is currently available for iOS. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can join the Android waitlist here.
you know, we, in general, you know, as policymakers, policy commentators, development partners, have to invest more in the potential of these young people to develop new ideas, new technologies, also new trade linkages to exploit the potential of these agri-food systems.
Thank you. Thank you so much. My guest today has been Fabien Tondel, the policy officer at the European Centre for Development and Policy Management. It's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you.
Thank you, Tobi. It was my pleasure as well.