Agricultural products are the base of the Nigerian economy, supplying food for the Nigerian people as well as valuable cash crops for export to other countries. These days, the agricultural sector is developing fast, and standards are being used to unleash the potential of the agri-food industry.
The global food security challenge is straightforward: by 2050, the world must feed 9.7 billion people. That means the demand for food will be 60 % greater than it is today. The United Nations has set ending hunger, achieving food security and promoting sustainable agriculture as the second of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the year 2030.
Nigeria has been an avid proponent and early adopter of the SDGs, which were approved by the United Nations in September 2015, and plans and policies are now underway to achieve these goals. Despite a strong reliance on farming and agriculture, linked to 70 % of Nigeria’s employment, malnutrition is prevalent in many regions, according to the Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDGF), a United Nations mechanism providing financial support for sustainability initiatives. Today, Nigeria is placing renewed focus on its agriculture as it seeks to address chronic food insecurity in parts of the country.
Food security and why it matters
Why the urgency? The obvious reason is that everybody needs food. Without proper nutrition, our body couldn’t survive. Yet several reports have indicated that one out of ten people among the 7.6 billion world population goes hungry, and with the world’s demographics increasing, this statistic may be even higher.
Food security looks at the availability of food and the accessibility of the available food. Prior to the discovery of oil, which channelled funds away from the farming sector, the issue of food insecurity was non-existent; Nigeria was able to feed its population and export the surplus. Today, despite its vast agricultural potential, the country is a net importer of food.
Once the primary source of government revenue and foreign exchange earnings, agriculture in Nigeria has suffered from decades of underinvestment, policy neglect and lost opportunity due to poor planting material, low fertiliser application and a weak agricultural extension system.
A holistic approach
But food insecurity in Nigeria is not solely tied to underproduction (the country produces 8.41 %, 1.09 % and 2.85 % of roots and tubers, cereal and legumes respectively) though there is an urgent need to step up production. According to a report by the Central Bank of Nigeria (2001), the current rate of increased food production of 2.5 % per annum does not measure up with the 2.8 % annual population growth.
The rising competition for food has imposed demands for lasting solutions, but what steps are required to truly change the agricultural sector into an engine for transformative growth? To be sure, cranking up production is no silver bullet for the country’s food insecurity; instead, an all-encompassing approach is what is needed.
Self-sufficiency can only be achieved if crop yields are matched by post-harvest technology, which largely determines the final quality of the product. This includes protecting crops from spoilage and wastage through maximum investment in storage techniques, stimulating production and preventing the hoarding of foodstuffs by agri-food suppliers or local buying agents. In parallel, there needs to be a holistic approach to agricultural research, encompassing various stakeholders in both the public and private sectors in the agricultural value chain.
Safe enough to eat
With a fast-growing economy, a burgeoning middle class and complex supply chains, Nigeria also faces a growing array of food safety challenges. Despite the industry’s best efforts, foodborne diseases and food recalls have been regular occurrences in restaurants and food chains across the country. More than half of all foodborne outbreaks in the country are associated with poor food handling by restaurants, banquet facilities, schools and other institutions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in Nigeria.
Food safety involves efforts and compliance with procedures that are put in place to ensure that food is safe, from farm to table. These efforts include ethical safety steps in handling, preparation and storage. Of major importance are the environment and personal hygiene, pest control, removal of waste, and cleaning programmes to minimize the risk of foodborne diseases along the food value chain.
In Nigeria, and all over the world, governments continue to pass laws and regulations to prevent unethical practices that could support the spread of foodborne illnesses from unsafe food production. That’s why standards for identifying, preventing, controlling and monitoring foodborne pathogens and microbial parasites are clearly needed to help achieve acceptable quality assurance in the food industry and its value chain.
Addressing the challenges
ISO standards are inevitably the main tool for addressing today’s food challenges. They enable safe practices along the global food supply chain, from sound agricultural methods to layout specifications for the end products. This global trend has prompted the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), ISO member for the country, in collaboration with its stakeholders, to set limits and requirements that are geared towards sustaining food quality and global best practice.
Of the 50 000 standards developed by SON, some 5 000 are related to food. At SON, we review existing food standards, develop new ones and evaluate areas of contention surrounding new market needs. But regulation is only as good as the resources available to investigate and enforce it, so Nigerian Industrial Standards allow for traceability via labelling, proactive food safety systems and regulatory compliance.
Action by all
Whether it’s food security or nutrition, concerted efforts are needed to elicit change, from multinational corporations to individuals who transport, store and sell food. Take, for instance, food security. A lot of effort is being put into addressing food safety challenges, such as foodborne pathogens, spoilage organisms and their toxins. For this reason, many food companies in Nigeria are now using ISO 22000 for food safety management systems and adopting the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), a food production monitoring system aimed at preventing contamination at the earliest stages. What’s more, manufacturers and food industry experts continue to curb inordinate practices such as the use of low-quality and raw materials, undeclared additives and food fraud.
A unified food quality and safety system is needed – particularly in countries with weak and fragmented food control systems – to achieve good-quality food that’s safe for consumption. But much more remains to be done. There is a need to address emerging viruses and antimicrobial resistance organisms, develop improved methods for identifying genetically modified organisms and increase the effectiveness of compliance along the food chain.
While many hurdles still need to be overcome, Nigeria’s food opportunities look bright. Despite the setbacks, the country’s agricultural sector is still considered to be the strongest and most developed branch of its economy. Nigeria’s diverse climate, which varies from tropical to subtropical, makes it easy to grow almost all crops in the region. And with ISO standards and SON’s work with national agencies, the country’s products are poised for competitiveness in local and international markets.