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The global food outlook is grim. The US, the world’s largest exporter of maize and wheat, is facing the most severe drought in more than half a century. And it could get worse. Severe weather has also visited havoc in other major food exporting countries like Australia, Brazil, Russia and India.

There are growing concerns that the decline in output in the world’s leading grain exporting countries could touch off a global shortage of vital food commodities. A couple of weeks ago, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said global food prices had jumped 6 per cent, with price of maize going up 23 per cent.

Thank goodness, Kenya is not facing a drought of the proportion currently ravaging the US. But even when no single disaster befalls Kenya, our food economy remains fragile and vulnerable to the vagaries of events in far off places – thanks partly to globalisation. Early indications are that the maize harvest for 2012 could decline by 20-30 per cent.

Widespread crop failure is expected in parts of Mwingi, Makueni, Kitui and Taita. The long-rains in these regions were erratic; starting 2-4 weeks late and ending 3-4 weeks earlier than usual. The outbreak of the highly contagious maize lethal necrosis disease in southern Rift Valley affected nearly 15,000 hectares and could cause a 20 per cent decline in harvest.

In April, it was reported that Kenya’s strategic grain reserve was short of 540,000 tonnes of maize. It is noteworthy that Kenyans consume 270,000 tonnes of maize per month. According to the Global Information Early Warning System of FAO, the national maize deficit or import requirements for 2012/13 is projected to be 1.15 million tonnes, up by about 15 per cent compared to 2011.

Maize prices in Kenya have generally increased during the last 3-4 months by an average of 20-25 per cent in main wholesale markets. According to Oxfam International, poor people in developing countries spend 50-80 of their income on food. A majority of Kenyans find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into a food insecurity induced poverty trap. A World Bank report published in 2011 estimates that the global food price spikes in 2008 pushed 44 million people below the poverty line, most of them in developing countries.

High food prices have led to significant declines in daily nourishment levels, leading to a surge in stunting, which now stands at about 35 per cent among children under five years of age. A report published by Unicef in 2009 concluded that because of low caloric intake, poor nutrition, the next generation of Kenyans would be shorter, less intelligent, less productive and hardly capable of sustaining the country’s dream of a prosperous nation within the Vision 2030.

Why hunger and malnutrition persists on a vast scale in Kenya and what can be done about it have proved to be two of the most intractable questions in research, development policy. The Green Revolution-style agriculture is not new to Kenya. In the 1970s the government poured money into fertiliser, seeds and farm mechanisation as well as price support.

These Green Revolution-style interventions caused farm output to grow by 4 per cent per year and the country was producing maize surplus. A combination of a glut in the global grain market, soaring fertiliser prices, World Bank’s structural adjustment programme in the late 1980s caused Kenya’s agricultural boom to crash. We can say, “been there, done that”.

The Achilles heel of the Green Revolution is its heavy reliance on irrigation and inputs such as hybrid seeds, fertilisers as well as pesticides. These inputs are clearly beyond the means of smallholder farmers and would rely on heavy subsidies. But who would pay for such subsidies given the neoliberal policies of the dominant global financial intuitions?

Economic pragmatists have argued that hungry countries have no comparative advantage in agriculture and therefore have no business farming. Hungry countries should focus on grain self-sufficiency but should leverage investments in production and value addition of non-grain commodities and non-agricultural products and use such earnings to import food.Our current food situation is an emergent product of complex interactions among many factors, which must be addressed.

These include: a young and rapidly growing population; declining arable land per capita; infertile soils; lack of reliable weather and climate forecast; poor access to quality inputs (seeds, fertiliser); scarce water resources; lack of stable land tenure rights, especially for women; lack of affordable financial services, including insurance; lack of appropriate mechanisation; poor market access; HIV/Aids (according to a report by FAO one in four farm workers in the hardest-hit countries like Kenya will have died of the disease by 2020), vulnerability to climate change; and, low value addition. Food insecurity must be understood as a self-replicating malaise that will not be cured until Kenya’s larger political, social, economic and environmental problems are robustly addressed.

The author is an ecosystems ecologist based at Aga Khan University.