Food safety and Nigeria’s place in global agribusiness and trade
By Audu Ogbeh
You cannot talk about food and health without talking about agriculture. The quality of food begins on the farm. It has to do with the quality of seeds, the quality of soil, the quality of fertiliser, the quality of chemicals. All of these add up to the output that is delivered to the table.
Connecting food safety, public health, investment and food trade is a complete value chain on its own, especially when it comes to agricultural development in all its ramifications. And this is what the present administration stands for in its policy and strategy document called the “Green Alternative.”
Within this context, especially as regards food safety and public health, our ministry has embarked on a number of programmes and activities on public awareness for acceptance of agricultural commodities, total inclusion of private sector and financial institutions, especially those with bias for agriculture.
We have problems with financial institutions on good agricultural practices. We still have trouble finding lenders to farmers. The banking sector still considers agriculture a zone of high danger. So, the small farmer, the big farmer has immense difficulty accessing credit. And so, the farmer in Nigeria finds it extremely difficult to farm like other farmers do elsewhere.
Interest rates across the globe average 3 per cent. Here, in Nigeria, it still stands at 25 per cent and above. That kind of interest rate may be good for producing cocaine, but certainly not for okro, rice and beans, yam and cassava. So, we can’t do it right. And, if we can’t do it right, the problem begins from the farm gate.
One of the major actions that we took was to set up a standing inter-ministerial technical committee on the zero reject of agricultural commodities and produce of non-oil exports from Nigeria. This committee was co-chaired by myself and the minister of industry, trade and investment.
Exactly two months and two weeks ago, stakeholders from across the nation gathered at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and validated the Nigerian articulated strategy for ensuring a single quality control management system for Nigeria as regards global acceptance and zero reject of our agricultural commodities and produce.
We have developed two documents, one of them called the methodology of conduit of excellence, quality and safety rules for Nigeria and standard operating procedure manual for zero reject for non-oil exports from Nigeria. All of these are with the support of the European Union and UNIDO. But one problem we’ve had in this country, which the Ghanaians have solved, is that they have managed to acquire certification for their own produce in foreign countries. We haven’t done so yet.
The process of certification is lengthy and rigorous. One of the major ingredients is what they call traceability: where is this product coming from? From what farm? And how are the crops grown? What kind of fertiliser has been applied? What kinds of chemicals? If there should be any problem with the crops, we like to find out why? That we haven’t done. But, you find that the Ghanaians export yams to Europe or the United States. And one-and-a-half kilo piece of yam in the United States sells for as much as $15,
With all due respect, Ghana does not produce half of the yam produced from Nassarawa or Benue State. But they export on our behalf, because we can’t export the yams. We export beans to Europe. The beans are rejected because, sometimes, in our hurry to deliver these things to the European markets, we forget that the Europeans are very strict about standards, because they want to protect the health of their people.
Occasionally, a package of beans is found to have a dead rat, or rat faeces or to be heavily contaminated with chemicals. And then, they have no choice but to reject the beans or throw them into the sea. And sometimes we react very angrily, and we say it is prejudice. It is not prejudice because there is only one standard now: the universal standard. We mustn’t have Nigerian standard or American standard.
The journey is not going to be very easy because we have to educate everyone: the farmer, the processor, the packaging group, the exporter, and so on. If you notice, too many young people are falling sick of liver and kidney problems in this country. We see them in hospitals appealing for help, for N10 million naira to go to India, and so on. And you wonder why will a young person at the age of 15 have a kidney or liver problem. And this person may not be an alcoholic. So, what is the problem?
We are getting very anxious at the level of the ministry because health in food has to do with how we eat. Food can either be a medicine or a poison. We share this anxiety with the ministry of health and every other agency concerned with the health of our people. So, we have to embark on public awareness, campaign and strategic communication on food poisoning and what I consider self-poisoning.
We will be changing the mind set of our people, even the drying of grains and produce, the grinding machine we use for grinding tomato, onion and pepper in the market. A few weeks ago, a young Nigerian from Ibadan came to our office to display the machinery I requested that he should produce. The grinding mill in the market is made of raw steel. And, as it grinds, there is friction and pieces of metals wear into the tomato, onion or the beans that we eat. The minister of health will tell you that metal poisoning is quite deadly.
Have we paid attention to this in the past? We haven’t. What we need is food-grade stainless steel. But food-grade stainless steel is very expensive. For our government, we have no choice but to produce these machines on a scale as large as possible and subsidise them to protect our people from poisoning which they do not even suspect.
Besides that, because we are using raw metals, there is rust, which gets into the food, even when we grind beans, or moin moin, or cassava, or whatever we grind with these machines. Using substandard machineries, we are actually poisoning ourselves, even though we are not aware we are doing it. Or, when you drive along and see somebody drying cassava by the roadside, gathering up the cassava later, and going to make amala. And then you read in the newspaper that, suddenly, a family of seven died after a meal of amala. What killed them? We don’t seriously engage in post-mortem details to establish the cause of death. We prefer to blame witchcraft, or somebody in the family who hates somebody. A mix of tar, emission and cement gets into the food meant for human consumption. These are very serious challenges that we must deal with, especially as our population is approaching 200 million.
Recently, the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics announced that the Nigerian population is 193 million. It is even more frightening that more children are born in Nigeria everyday than in the European Union. But if we are heading that way, then by 2050, we should be close to 450 million. In a world of 9 billion people, that is 5 per cent of the world population. Shall we feed well? Shall we feed right? Shall we have the right quantity of food and the right quality of food for our people?
We are also told that 37 per cent of our children are malnourished and that about 25 per cent are stunted. What is the problem? Are we taking enough protein? Or vitamins? And if 37 per cent are malnourished, then the consequences for the development of the brain and the brawn will be very severe in a world that is driven by knowledge. Shall we be good sports men and women? That is something to worry about.
The boom era of oil and gas has gone and people have never really shown much interest in agriculture. It has been abandoned for the poor peasant in the village. For 40 years, we chose to import rice at the cost of $5 million a day. This situation has affected the quality of food we import. Frozen food, for instance, injected with formaldehyde, fish frozen and de-frozen, breaking the cold chain; honey from certain parts of the world, tomato paste reddened with some kinds of chemicals, apples ripened in some chemicals – we buy and eat – especially if they are imported, they must be of very good quality! We are slowly poisoning ourselves.
There is a part of Nigeria I visited, where they do fishing. Because there are no cooling facilities for preserving the fish before smoking, they spray insecticides on the fish to drive away flies. And they smoke with cow dungs. You go to the local rice mills where women parboil rice with drums made of raw metals, with a high degree of rust filtering into the rice. We import tons of rice from some other economies. Research has associated arsenic poisoning with rice cultivation under certain conditions of soil management.
Pure water in plastic sachets or plastic bottles left for long in the sun could pose health risks. Aflatoxin in maize on the farm is very easy to ingest. The beef we eat, how are they slaughtered or transported? Who has seen slaughtered goats roasted with tyres and the meat washed with water from the gutter, heading for the shop for you to buy? The luck we have with microbial infections in foods is that we over-cook our food, and that helps quite a bit. The weed killers we use on the farm, some of them have been banned in other countries. They still find their way in.
How about packaging of grains? The use of polypropylene bags is being discouraged and jute bags is now being promoted, even for cotton. We had two jute bag factories in this country: one in Badagry and one in Jos. The two have packed up. We want to revive the production of jute bags once again. Just last few weeks, we received the three universities of agriculture back in the ministry of agriculture. For nearly two decades they wandered off to Ministry of Education.
It is not enough to eat much. Whether it nourishes your brain or your nerves, strengthens your mind or your capacity is another issue. Eating much is not the same as eating well. From now on, the aim of this country, and all of us, should be to eat well. The pregnant woman, the nursing mother, the labourer, the professor, the surgeon, the journalist, the accountant, and even the politician needs well-nourished brains from good food.
Chief Ogbeh is the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development..