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Our Holy Grail: Three Meals a Day

Opinion by Berhe W. Aregay, The Daily Monitor (Addis Ababa), 22 November 2000

Addis Ababa—In this darn age of globalization, you are supposed to buy those meals, and not grow them yourself.

Here in Ethiopia, where it is the business of 80 per cent of the people to produce them directly, the goal still remains an illusion, unfortunately. If only this lingering, lousy (during droughts, precious) rain would only vanish!.

If it does so soon enough, I have the hunch that we may have big enough harvest to give us some respite. Which means the possibility of our featuring in world news headlines again will have been reduced.

Overall then, we have every reason to thank our gods for the way the last rainy season has turned out to be. In areas that farmers have used extension package inputs, farmers are especially expected to produce bumper harvest.

Does that mean then that the country is well on its way to declare itself sufficient in food? Let’s not forget that even in excellent years there’ll always be corners in the country that for one reason or another will have poor harvest. But even we if exclude poor-performing areas from the calculus, could we still declare so? In my view such a conclusion is subject to yearly review, as it were.

So even if things turn out as desired this year, a legitimate claim will be that the country will be food secure for the Ethiopian year 1993 (or 2000/1). A relevant example perhaps, is what took place four years ago.

The country then had bumper crop. It even managed to export some.

The following year, it was a bust. Ordinary people, who had assumed that agriculture as they knew it (deficit and all) was good-bye, began to wonder how the much vaunted food self-sufficiency could have evaporated so soon.

Debate continues as to whether Ethiopia has its fundamentals right to enable it to be food self-sufficient. Some say it does, others think not.

I don’t want to belabor the point here, as we have already heard the pros and cons on several occasions in the past. But we all can, perhaps, agree on the following facts: That, Ethiopia’s agriculture at present at least, depends entirely on rain.

That, low inputs and traditional ways of production characterize this agriculture. That, we have a fast growing population which in many parts of rural areas has already given rise to individual holdings too small to make much economic sense.

And that quite a sizable areas of the country, for one reason or another, can’t exactly be described as being productive any more. Actually it is possible to cite many more negative attributes.

Therefore, is our goal to become food secure in short order feasible? Every effort being exerted to bring about food self-sufficiency should be lauded, no doubt. However, two points come to mind that can, perhaps put off the acquisition of the Holy Grail.

Dependence on undependable rain. How the 1993 Belg and kiremt will turn out to be, nobody can pretend to have a clue.

And no matter how-well stocked our stores will get with fertilizers, improved seeds etc. if the rains are not right, we go right back to square one.

If the rains are right, and I hope they will be, everything will be hunky- dory. Here, it isn’t implied that uncertainty in the weather is Ethiopia’s monopoly (Neighboring Kenya is just coming out from three years of drought.

Many Kenyans have been forced to rely on food aid from outside). All I am trying to say is if bad years nullify food self-sufficiency, will it be right to put food security goals within a time frame, and short time at that? Degradation.

Ethiopia pins much hope in its agriculture; which is absolutely sane thing to do. But it is highly ironic that at the same time it lets its soil erode and degrade.

If the Americans say, it is the economy, stupid!, we could perhaps say, it is the natural resources, goddamit! As government policies change, so does the policy in agriculture. Somehow we ought to ensure that every agricultural policy has, central to it, the conservation and development of natural resources.

Even if we have to enshrine it in the constitution. As to the Holy Grail, I believe that we can have it if we aim at incrementally productive agriculture.

And that is a gradual process.