It seems that every time there is a food shortage or signs of an impending food shortage, there is a wave of warnings, threats and barriers to farmers selling their products, particularly maize on the cob. Supposedly, selling maize on the cob invites hunger.
As good as the intentions of the government leaders may be, banning the sale of maize on the cob and threatening farmers, who violate such a ban with fines is bad for three reasons.
First it violates farmers' fundamental right to decide for themselves what to do with the fruit of their labour, second it is likely to financially hurt, not help, farmers and their families and third it is likely to hurt everyone else too, as it backfires and leads to low food production.
Government leaders have the responsibility of advising farmers regarding the food situation. Nonetheless, farmers have the right to decide, when to sell their produce. Farmers are often treated as people, who cannot think for themselves.
Yet they make careful decisions as to what crops to grow and when, taking into account the weather, costs, expected prices, etc. Farming, like any other business endeavour, involves taking risks. Those risks are best known to the farmers themselves.
Some of the directives coming from government leaders blame farmers, who sell maize on the cob as people, who invite hunger and they threaten them with prosecution. Imagine, someone, who has produced food might be prosecuted for inviting hunger! By that logic, what would be the fate of those, who have never touched a farm tool?
Although government leaders may have good intentions and may even think they are fighting for the farmers, that does not justify denying farmers freedom to sell their produce as they wish. A government leader, no matter his or her position, does not know the needs of individual families.
How, for example, can an outsider tell a family that waiting until the maize is dry is more important than selling maize on the cob for a child's medical treatment or to invest in another income generating activity?
Moreover, there are advantages to selling maize on the cob. For example, it can allow some farmers to have two harvests in a year instead of just one. In addition, it reduces security costs against monkeys and thieves on the farms. Farmers should not need a permit to sell their own crops.
Of course, some farmers make poor decisions about their produce and incomes, not to mention some men, who seem to appear at home only during harvest. But that observation can be made about people of all walks of life. We don't warn politicians, civil servants, or businesspeople, for example, that they will be prosecuted if they don't spend their salaries wisely. Nor do we ask them to provide proof that they have provided for their families before they can be allowed to buy a bottle of beer.
Supposedly, the ban on selling maize on the cob, or grain in general, is also to prevent wasteful use of grain, including using it to prepare local brew.
Although this warning seems reasonable, it is not in the interests of farmers. If there is a prohibition against making such local brew, strict and swift actions must be taken regardless of the food situation.
However, it is not the responsibility of the person selling grain to determine how the buyer is going to use it. Requiring such verification by the farmer is both unfair and impractical.
Incidentally, if the government was truly determined to prevent "wasteful" use of grain, why isn't the production of beer prohibited? It is possible that considering what is good for the public, leaders may prohibit the use of grains in making local brew.
However, it should not be suggested that such a policy is in favour of farmers. How would it benefit them if it shrinks the market for their crops?
When you limit domestic or foreign markets for farmers' products, regardless of the reasons, you reduce farmers' income.
The fear of food shortage must not bring the country back to difficult days of the 1980s, when one had to go to the district office to get a permit to transport maize to a relative. There were roadblocks everywhere to prevent the shipment of grain from one district to another.
If the solution to the food shortage was a prohibition against selling one's own food products, we would have solved food problems decades ago.
We do not solve food problems by issuing decrees, but rather by devising and implementing comprehensive policies that increase agricultural productivity. Preventing farmers from selling their own products reduces their incentive to farm - a sure way to invite hunger.
The author is professor of economics at La Salle University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.