By John Staatz, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, Michigan State University
Soaring and volatile international food prices since 2007-08 have forced West African governments and their development partners to translate their long-standing rhetoric about support for West African agriculture into concrete programmes. Doing so effectively, however, has proven much more challenging than simply meeting the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) goal of increasing the share of national budgets and donor funds dedicated to the agricultural sector. A recently released joint study by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) and Michigan State University (MSU) draws lessons from such efforts over the past 10 years and suggests ways in which policies and programmes can be more effective in helping West Africa feed its young, burgeoning and increasingly urban population. Research by MSU, SFSA and West African scholars provides a number of crucial policy insights.
Policies need to adapt to reflect major changes in the region
During the international food price crisis, West African governments protected consumers from the full impact of volatile international food prices through measures such as tax holidays on imported foods and input subsidies to farmers. These measures, however, have had a high opportunity cost to the local economies, as they absorbed revenues that could have been used to relieve underlying structural constraints to greater agricultural productivity.
To build greater resilience to future price fluctuations, policies need to reflect the major changes taking place in the region beginning with consumption habits. West Africans are changing their diets rapidly, consuming more perishable and processed foods. Consequently, focusing food policies mainly on cereals, as in the past, will be less effective in addressing the future needs of farmers and consumers.
Moreover, focusing food policy primarily on the farm-level is insufficient, as several of the constraints to competitiveness lie in logistics, marketing, processing and retailing. Many of these activities lie in areas outside of the domain of ministries of agriculture, requiring greater cross-sectoral policy co-ordination. West African agriculture can be competitive with imports, but only if entire value chains are improved.
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