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Opinions of Friday, 27 March 2020

Columnist: Jeffrey Agyemang Duah, Contributor

Coronavirus: How prepared is the Ghana rice sector?

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Scientists and Health Professionals have indicated on countless occasions the difficulties faced in discovering the appropriate medication for the infamously deadly disease, Coronavirus. However, people take solace in the fact that a strong immune system can help in the recovery and fight against the virus should one become exposed to it. This clearly indicates that what we eat is imperative at this time to build up a solid body system that will be unsusceptible to the disease.

Some Ghanaians have expressed their dissatisfaction with how people have hoarded and increased prices of groceries and other food items particularly rice at the major shops in Accra and some part of Kumasi in their moment of self-isolation. Whiles others do so in anticipation that, should the disease become unbearable leading to a total shutdown in certain parts of the country.

Rice is the second most important food staple in Ghana and successive governments have tackled it as a very critical crop in achieving food security in the country. Brown rice which is adequately produced in Ghana is known to be a good immune booster especially in combination with other plant-based food like beans.

So far, the number of Coronavirus cases reported in Ghana is a threat to farming creating fear and panic to the rice value chain actors. Production activities such as land preparation, transplanting, fertilizer application, harvesting including farmer trainings on Good Agronomic Practices (GAPs) are prospectively going to be on a halt as a result of the outbreak. Again, rice mills and processing facilities are likely to be shut down which will affect marketing and supply of rice to the various locations. Since the rice sector players are also to adhere to the Covid- 19 precautionary measures, most of them will probably stay away from their usual duties in order to stay safe from the disease. This reinforces the reason why mechanization and the use of machines are very critical in rice production especially in this extraordinary circumstance where farmers are to observe social distancing and other safety measures like personal hygienic practices.

As rice farmers are about to begin their production for the year, a strong Public-Private Partnership (PPP) and innovative ways of farming must be deployed to minimize the manual/human services. It is not too late for the government to revive the various Agricultural Mechanization and Enterprise Centers (AMSEC) and effectively managed for them to render service to these farmers.

Whiles people are calling for the total shut down of the country, it is also important to consider those who will be on the farms to cultivate the food that we consume most. We need adequately balanced diet to stay healthy in our various homes in order to control the spread of the virus.

Covid-19 is likely to cause shortages of labor in Ghana and the government must consider options in protecting the rice sector and the actors at this season so that they can produce the quality and quantity of rice needed by the country. The average age of a rice farmer is 55 years. Should the virus reach the farming communities most farmers will be vulnerable to the disease as people between the ages of 50 – 69 are the second most vulnerable group.

An emergency dialogue must be held by the government and the major rice importer and private companies on how they can channel their resources to support the development of the rice sector. In late 2019, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture reported that, all major rice importers in Ghana should at least source 20% of their imports locally before import permit will be issued to them, but the question is, who should produce the rice for the importers to buy at this time? Government must make the importers active players in the rice production process in the country. The novel coronavirus is still spreading and it is very difficult to tell when it will be contained as the situation is already affecting the price of rice and we don’t want the country to experience what happened in the global food crisis in 2008.

Policy interventions by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture such as the “Planting for Food and Jobs” where farmers enjoy a 50% subsidy on fertilizers and improved seeds must be increased to at least 70% to relieve farmers and serve as a motivation for them to embark on their production activities. Extension officers must be incentivized to carry out their duties to farmer so that they can produce adequate food for the year and beyond. Critical attention should be paid to the “one village one dam” program, being implemented in northern Ghana to make water available for all-year-round production so that farmers can leverage and upscale rice productivity.

Even though, Ghana rice sector has done quite well in terms of production, consumption has increased as a result of media campaign on ‘Eat Ghana Rice,’ population and income growth, urbanization and change in consumption biased towards rice. We cannot pretend there is enough rice for the importers to buy. There is no rice! We should not also shy away from the struggles that the smallholder farmers go through in order to produce just an acre of land. The government must devise strategies on how to protect rice value chain actors in this coronavirus crisis. The time has come for the importers to step into the sector with groundbreaking ideas and financial support to improve rice production.

Asian countries that produce about 90% of the world rice have been highly affected by the disease especially China, where the virus is reported to have been originated from. Ghana over the years has been importing huge amount of rice from Asian Countries like China, India, Thailand, and Vietnam among others to meet their domestic demand. One will ask if Ghana will continue to depend on China and other countries to feed their people in this Corona Pandemic season.

Many authors have projected the reduction in Asian rice growth as a result of rapidly rising incomes, changing tastes with urbanization, and globalization, especially as younger people adopt a more “western diet” relative to their parents. Prabhu Pingaliin recounted in his book, “Asian Rice Bowls: The Returning Crisis” a more sobering update, highlighting slowing rice yield growth and signs of serious environmental degradation in Asian countries.

Research has also indicated that area sown to rice will probably start declining in Asia after 2025 because of further urbanization and industrialization, but also in part because of the diversi?cation of diets to vegetable oils, horticulture, meat and dairy products, which are becoming more pro?table alternatives to farmers. Consequently, rice share as a farm income will, therefore, be minimized which will be a disincentive to the Asian farmers. More so, in densely populated rural Asia where rice is produced, half of the household income is already provided from nonfarm sources, including remittances and these trends are predicted to escalate after 2020 making the sector unattractive to farmers.

As a result of the booming non-farm activities in China and other Asian countries, agricultural and the rural sector is gradually beginning to enter a stage of massive decline of the labor force through rural-urban migration which will affect rice productivity not only in the Asian countries but Africa who largely depends on them for food. There is a restriction on mobility in China now because of corona pandemic and large numbers of migrants who normally return to their provinces are also trapped because of the quarantine measures resulting in labor shortages which will likely impact the domestic and global rice supply chain.

Africa is now the new growth center for rice and there is no denial about the strategic role of Ghana as far as food security is concerned on the continent. As we see the COVID-19 pandemic unfold, we should be concerned about the potential repercussions on food. Ghana cannot continue to depend on the Asian countries especially China with so much projected uncertainty in rice production which is presently compounded by Coronavirus for their major food staple whiles we have all it takes to produce locally. Ghana has no excuse but to jealously guard the rice sector and think through how to compensate for the anticipated productivity challenges in Asia and save the country from food insecurity.