The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the need to strengthen not only Ghana’s health systems but also its food systems.
Ghana’s Food and Agriculture Sector Development Policy (FASDEP II) acknowledges the importance of assessing the country's readiness to respond to the needs of victims of natural hazards.
As the world goes through this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghana should be able to provide food for everyone, especially persons most affected by the pandemic.
The rise in the positive COVID-19 cases in Ghana led to the imposition of a three-week lockdown, which had devastating effects on individuals and businesses.
People resorted to panic buying, and prices of some foods sharply increased. For example, one ‘olonka’ of gari which used to be sold at GH¢8 was sold at GH¢18 due to the panic buying.
Households’ access to food might have also been aggravated when some markets were closed down because of non-compliance with COVID-19 preventive protocols. Thus, consumers, producers and traders were affected in various ways.
The experiences during this pandemic suggest that Ghana needs to have full control over its food production and supplies, more importantly because access to food is a basic human right and vital for good health and life.
How can Ghana improve and sustain its self-reliance in food production and supplies?
Increase the productivity of both food and cash crops, livestock and fish: This can be achieved by addressing land tenure and access to fertiliser, credit, improved seeds and breeds, efficient and modern technologies, enhanced soil fertility and irrigation systems, mechanisation, among others.
Improve storage infrastructure and practices:
In times of pandemics, a country’s food imports could be affected as many ports could be closed.
Therefore, we need to increase the local production of food crops that our climate can support to ensure their ready availability and access at critical times.
However, challenges persist with regard to post-harvest losses, particularly in staple roots and tubers (yam, cassava, cocoyam, sweet potatoes), plantain, fruits and vegetables. While we prepare for any eventualities, we need to find sustainable solutions to addressing post-harvest losses.
The high perishability of these staples compounded the food crisis for households, traders and farmers, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown as they could not store these perishable commodities for relatively longer periods.
The work of the National Buffer Stock Company and aggregators is critical and we need more community storage facilities, warehouses and improved storage structures and dryers in market centres.
In times of crisis, there could be limited market access for cash crops or even a reduction in prices as we have experienced with cocoa where according to a publication in Confectionery News, Ghana has lost about US$1bn since prices declined in February, this year.
Currently, apart from cassava that is processed into products such as gari, most perishable staples are rarely processed to prolong their shelf lives and increase their economic value.
In his recent statement, the Minister of Food and Agriculture said Ghana exported 19 different food items to other West African countries, but admitted that we needed to focus on agro-processing to help prolong the storage life of our produce and prevent post-harvest losses.
With the coming into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement in which sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) and Technical Barrier to Trade (TBT) issues have been prioritised, Ghana needs to make greater efforts to enhance enforcement and compliance with food standards and regulations and other market and trade requirements in order to sustain food trade within the continent.
The Food Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has developed several post-harvest management technologies and value-added products, some of which have been commercialised.
It is critical to strengthen research-extension linkages so that these technologies reach food processing entrepreneurs and other actors.
Improve access to nutritious and safe foods:
It is important to ensure the provision of safe and nutritious foods during emergencies because, for example, with the COVID-19, an increased diversity of nutritious and safe food is required to boost the immune response to the infection.
It is more important now to integrate food safety in agricultural programmes because there is no food security without food safety. For example, during the rainy season, people (traders, households, food services) may buy and stockpile maize.
However, the high humidity and temperature can result in the production of aflatoxin, which is an immune suppressor. This can thwart our efforts at boosting our immune systems to fight the COVID-19 disease and other infections.
Promote consumption of local foods:
Consumers should be amenable to change and embrace our local foods in diverse forms. The most sustainable way of addressing food insecurity is to promote the production and consumption of local foods.
Globalisation and increased international trade have resulted in the influx of various food products, some of which are nutritionally poor. Over-reliance on imported foods can cause food shortages in times of crisis when imported foods may be unavailable.
This can be curtailed when we consume nutrient-dense foods produced locally under safe and hygienic conditions. Social protection programmes such as the School Feeding Programme will also contribute to meeting the food needs of pupils during crisis.
Investment is critical to the achievement of all the above. For example, in Ghana’s Medium-Term Agricultural Improvement Programme (METASIP II: 2011-2015), the estimated cost for productivity improvement was GH¢136 million, irrigation and water management was GH¢286 million while development of new products and uptake of technology had costs of GH¢10.2 million and GH¢2.1 million respectively.
It is unclear how much of these costs were actually spent; however, the outcome of the African Union’s 2019 Biennial Review shows that Ghana is not on track towards the achievement of the Malabo Commitments of enhancing investments and financing in agriculture and ending hunger by 2025.
In conclusion, enhancing Ghana’s ability to respond to its food needs in times of crisis requires policies aimed at improving access to agriculture inputs and technologies, agricultural productivity, post-harvest management, value addition, food safety and compliance with requirements for marketing and trade, investment and financing, promotion of the consumption of local foods and social protection.
The writer is a Senior Research Scientist, Science and Technology Policy Research Institute, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.