« Achieving food security by preserving the West African market against low priced importations »

Sienou Seydou, farmer in the North of Burkina Faso. Because of climate change, he is now struggling to grow enough crops to feed his family. Credit: Gery Barbot/ Oxfam

Op-ed published in Le Monde Afrique https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2022/05/03/garantir-la-securite-alimentaire-en-protegeant-le-marche-ouest-africain-face-aux-importations-a-bas-prix_6124630_3212.html

The contributors point out that countries that depend on global markets for their food supplies are the ones most affected by skyrocketing prices.

The war in Ukraine has caused the price of many agricultural inputs, energy and fertilizers to skyrocket on the global market. Prices had already risen sharply over the past two years due to the increase in energy prices, poor harvests, increased demand from China, etc. The global wheat price was 40% higher when the war began than at the beginning of 2020. In the last month, it has increased by another 40%. In just over two years, it has almost doubled. For fertilizers, the price of urea was, at the end of March, four times higher than in early 2020.

This surge is purely speculative for now - stocks are available and there has been no drop in production - but it could be long-lasting if the war is prolonged and if the cost of energy and fertilizers continues to increase.

Countries that depend on the global market for their food are the ones that are most affected. This includes countries in North Africa and the Middle East. In West Africa, soaring prices are part of a food crisis that is already affecting millions of people. Although small-scale farming produces the vast majority of the food, the growing dependence of cities on imported food could worsen the food crisis in the coming months.

Preserving the Buying Power of West Africans

The current situation reinforces the long-standing argument of many farmers' and civil society organizations on the need to ensure food security for the West African population through policies designed to achieve a high level of self-reliance in food production and to protect the West African market from low-priced agricultural and food imports.

Currently, the West African market is poorly controlled, with customs fees of only 5 percent on milk powder and wheat. When global prices are not surging, the low price of imported products has an impact on the price of all local food production, depriving farmers and breeders of sufficient income to invest.

Such competition is also leading to a gradual change in eating habits in cities, at the expense of local production. The Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), which were concluded under strong pressure from the European Union, provide for even greater trade liberalization to the benefit of European multinational corporations. Mr. Kako Napukpo, Commissioner for Agriculture, Water Resources and the Environment at the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), pointed out in a recent interview "the perverse effects [of the EPAs] in exporting excess produce from the European Common Agricultural Policy to the continent, and the lack of incentive to develop a local supply."

The main argument used to argue against better protection for West African markets through higher customs fees is the need to preserve the purchasing power and food security of the poorest consumers. When prices increase, this policy, which leads to increased dependence on imports, actually affects people in urban areas much more than a reasonable increase in customs fees would.

A Volatile Global Market

For example, members of the West African Mon lait est local movement are calling for a 30 percent increase in the common external tariff (CET) on imported milk powder, which competes with milk produced in the region. However, in two years, the global price of this mixture of skimmed milk powder and palm oil, which currently accounts for three quarters of West African milk powder imports, has doubled.

Food security is more threatened by liberal policies in a volatile global market than by protective taxes that allow farmers and breeders to produce and contribute to the region's food sufficiency. Let's not forget that in rural areas food insecurity is at its highest, mostly due to low incomes of family farmers and herders.

In order to protect farmers from global low prices and to protect urban consumers from rising prices, West African countries should introduce flexible tariff rates: high when global prices are low, partially or totally suspended when they increase, in order to regulate the prices of imported products.

Security and Food Crisis

The current context is the right time to implement such policies: high protective tariffs could be set, but these would be entirely suspended for the time being in light of rising prices. Some might argue that these measures are contrary to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, but isn't it time, in the face of the challenges of the food crisis and the worsening security crisis in rural West Africa, to rethink them?

Some voices, deflecting the idea of food sovereignty, promote increased European agricultural production to feed the countries in the South. However, with the FARM initiative, the French presidency of the European Union also recommends increasing food production in the countries of the South. In line with such a position, the European Union should ensure that its exports, which indirectly benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), do not compete with local production through low prices.

It is also time for the EU to stop pressuring West African countries to open up their agricultural sectors for the sole benefit of a few European multinationals and instead to support the implementation of regulatory stocks at different levels and protection mechanisms for the West African regional market.

Contributors of the op-ed published in Le Monde Afrique

  • Ibrahima Coulibaly is the president of the Network of Farmers' and Producers' Organizations of West Africa (Roppa);
  • Amadou Hamadoum Dicko is the president of the Association for the Promotion of Livestock in the Sahel and in the savannah (Apess);  
  • Assalama Dawalack Sidi is the regional director of Oxfam in West and Central Africa;  
  • Laurent Levard is an agro-economist at GRET.