Lagos — For a nation so blessed with large expanse of fertile arable farmland, and yet suffers from persistent unfavourable balance of trade, the continued and even increased importation of food items becomes an irony.
A whopping sum of $27.97 billion was expended on food importation last year alone. The Economic Adviser to Mr President, Tanimu Kurfi, recently disclosed the figure when the Federal Government signed the Memorandum of Understanding with Popular Foods Ltd, a subsidiary of Stallion Groups.
According to him, the Federal Government spends as much as $300m on rice importation, $50 million on wheat importation, $650million on sugar importation, $2 billion on powdered milk and $2.5 Billion on fish and poultry, per year.
But need we spend so much on food imports? Here is a nation so profoundly endowed in such a way that it has all the potentials to be an agricultural giant that could even feed a large chunk of the African continent, if not beyond.
But the miscarriage of the Nigerian dream had long diverted its attention from its agro potentials to an easier and quicker crude oil wealth.
Were it not so, Nigeria will have just no business importing such large quantities of food item from anywhere. Which of the food items so listed, for instance, can Nigeria not maximally grow and export?
We therefore believe that President Yar'Adua got it right when he denounced the rate of food importation at the 30th Kaduna International Trade Fair. He noted rightly that "it is a paradox that despite our enormous human and natural resource endowments coupled with the comparative advantage which Nigeria enjoys in the agricultural sector, we still are a net importer of some essential food items".
Correct as the President may appear, the solution is not in helplessly bemoaning the current practice. The challenge for government is to revive the agricultural sector by redirecting its focus to it - creating an enabling environment and encouraging small and large scale farmers in the cultivation of the diverse food and cash crops the nation has been blessed with. It must also be concerned about making and enforcing laws that will promote agricultural development and growth. It is such determination that has made Brazil to now even out-farm the United States of America. And for a nation experiencing the global economic meltdown, made worse by the crash in price of crude oil, need we be told to look towards agriculture for the long overdue diversification of the economy?
For the nation to experience marked improvement on this, its decaying infrastructure must also be revamped, because even the distribution of agro produce remains one of the problems being faced by farmers.
Loans and credit facilities should be made available to the real farmers, not the elite and privileged contractors who end up bungling the scheme.
If it will take subsidising inputs, as other countries do openly, to revive agriculture, we support it. If the National Food Security Programme (NFSP) of the Federal Government is to be taken seriously, the time to move is now, with the millions of unemployed hands and large expanse of arable land waiting. The idea of resorting to food imports as quick fix to score political points should be discarded for such programmes as Government's new initiative to boost rise production across the country.