The current food crisis is an opportunity for West African countries like Mali to rebuild their neglected agricultural sectors, but only if public policies reflect the interests and insights of the family farmer. There are many reasons for the inflation of food prices. Only rarely are national governments and international institutions held to account for political choices made to satisfy Mali's city-dwellers and foreign industrial buyers.
In reply to urban food riots, Mali has launched the Rice Initiative. It aims to increase domestic rice production exponentially with publicly-subsidized fertilizer, seed, and agricultural equipment. The Niger District is to be the primary engine of this program. Yet, as a public forum this June made clear, the Rice Initiative is off-target. As the Federation of Centres of Service Providers, Faranfasi-so, pointed out, inaccessible land and credit also handicap the district's 20,000 family farms. Moreover, the government has set aside choice land for industrial production of sugar cane and cotton.
There is some good news. In 2006, after consulting with the National Joint Committee of Farmers Organizations (CNOP), the National Assembly passed a law asserting Mali's right to food sovereignty: its right to food and agriculture policies protective of domestic production. According to CNOP's president, Ibrahim Coulibaly, the viability of the family farm is key to food sovereignty, which in turn is the only real solution to the hyperinflation of food prices. (This notion runs counter to heavy pressure from the European Union to reduce African tariffs on agricultural imports.)
A second key to food sovereignty is the reconciliation of domestic food producers and consumers. Says Coulibaby, "We must take advantage of this crisis to tell African consumers the truth …. the time of low-price imports is over. A country like ours, that does not consume what it produces, is not viable economically and has no chance of achieving economic lift-off."