The Tyranny of Food Habits: A Key Challenge to Food Security in Tigray

Published on 23rd April 2019

Cultural values guarding the tastes for particular food menu of societies persist regardless of the fact that the natural, social, and economic relevance of many of the food items in the traditional menu is lost a long time ago.

One of the key components in the definition of food security is availability of the culturally/traditionally prescribed food items via production and marketing systems. People produce their own food or buy food from the market. For food security both are the same; but only if stability and sustainability of the food production and marketing systems are ensured. It is possible for the food production systems to be weak or absent while the food marketing system remains strong enough to ensure food security. Many of the Arab countries in desert environments belong to this category.

A huge number of countries and regions in the developing world suffer from deficiency both in the food production and marketing systems. One such region is Tigray. The food production system and the selection of food crops to be grown in the various agro-ecologies of the region were put in place several centuries ago in environmental, social, and economic settings different from that of today.

Tigray has had favorable climatic-hydrologic and edaphic conditions for the growing of sufficient quantities of cereals like teff, wheat, barley, sorghum, maize and finger millet; pulses like peas and beans; and a diversity of fruits and vegetables which constitute the staple diets. As the environmental conditions change through time by increasing aridity and human-induced soil degradation, the sustainability of the food production systems is adversely affected and unable to adequately feed the rapidly growing population of the region. The deterioration of the regional food production system, greater in magnitude and spatial coverage in the eastern two-third in contrast to the western third of the region, has had its deleterious effect on the standard of living of the people, above all their dignity. Surviving on relief food is the most dishonorable thing to happen to any human being. Most affected by the severe shortfall in the regional food production are the urban dwellers whose lives are hinged in the rural economy through a local and regional systems of food marketing.

As the local and regional food production of certain key staple food crops and animal food products decline, there have been at least three responses: 

1. Improving food production through using new and appropriate crop and animal breeding techniques; 

2. Ever rising prices of food products, particularly of the most popular ones; and

3. Resorting to inter-regional food trade to bridge the gap between the demand and supply for food.

I. Targeting the food production system through intervention and agricultural research takes us some distance in ensuring the availability component of food security; but this has its limits. Hybrid crops that can grow successfully on degraded soils and that need a shorter growing season and less water to grow and mature may solve the problem arising from the impact of environmental change on food production. However, the advantages of genetic modification involved in crop and animal breeding may be offset by the adverse long term environmental and human health impacts.

 Although the technological intervention approach to enhance food production is too beneficial to be abandoned out of fear of damage to environmental sustainability and human health, it should not be used to rigidly maintain the status quo.  It is counterproductive to stick to food habits that evolved in a food production system based on favorable environmental conditions of the past. This desynchronization may be psychologically rewarding but economically and environmentally penalizing.

In a drought-prone and predominantly dry land environment in Tigray, there should be second thoughts about consuming large quantities of beef particularly in the urban areas. Beef production takes huge quantities of water. If there can be a shift from the consumption of the water guzzling beef production to other water saving food production systems, it is possible to spare more water for the environment and for drinking. More water left for the environment means cyclically better hydrology for various purposes.

During the Derg, there was a very interesting but apparently funny slogan or motto: "Exchange your coffee addiction for foreign exchange." That means the less coffee Ethiopians drink the more there will be for export. The worthless and unhealthy fancy of consuming "kurt siga," "gored gored," etc. can be reduced or stopped in favor of enhancing environmental health.

The most popular cereal among Ethiopian highlanders, particularly among urbanites, is teff. Most people cannot imagine life without teff enjerra. The problem is teff is not grown everywhere and in large enough quantities as there is demand for it. As its price rises, people resort to adulterating it with other cereals. Scandalous teff merchants are taking advantage of their customers' diehard habit of consuming teff enjerra on a regular basis by adulterating teff enjerra with dangerous substances like gypsum powder. Teff has become more of a regional emblem than a staple food in Gojjam so much so that one Gojjame friend of mine was angry with one of my recommendations in my Master’s Thesis.

I did my MA thesis on urban food marketing in 1993 G.C. I conducted a price trend analysis of teff and concluded that teff is a "rocket"! My recommendation for urban consumers goes like this: "We don't eat teff as the main food. The main food is the wat. We use teff enjerra to hold the wat and put it in our mouth using it as a spoon. This is just an ages old habit that can be changed. If we try to get used to eating our wat with spoon then there is no need for teff enjerra. We are spending thousands on teff when we can buy spoons for less and save money for other more nutritious food like fruits and vegetables. (More emphasis added).

One severe social sticky point in the Eritrean separation from Ethiopia has been the availability of teff. Eritreans are mocked as "pasta eaters"; but they have been paying thousands of Nakfa to get teff through illegal border crossings as if it is blood for emergency transfusion. This is the incomprehensible power of the habit of teff consumption.

II. It is a rule of thumb in Economics that as supply decreases contrasted by increasing demand for some good or service, the price rises to create a balance in the economy by penalizing the have nots. People who cannot cope with rising prices withdraw from the market for that particular good and are expected to behave rationally by substituting the product or service by cheaper or affordable ones. This is known as 'price elastic demand.' This is consumer behavior associated with substitutable products like TV for instance. When the price of TV rises beyond affordability, some take radio as a substitute with a low enough price.  They can get music and news from it but sacrifice the images. Sometimes consumer demand may not flinch however high the price becomes. This is known as 'price inelastic demand.'

This type of demand occurs with products that cannot be substituted. As the price of drinking water rises, no shift is made to other substitutes. There are no substitutes for drinking water! When a liter of water costs 100, you buy; 1000 you still buy; 1Million you buy, and so on as long as you have the money. If you don't have a substitute, you die of thirst. Buying drinking water at any price is an economically rational behavior because drinking water is a matter of life or death. There are cases where price inelastic demand may be an economically irrational behavior.

The power of habit reinforced by deep-seated cultural values guiding social approval and disapproval of particular behavioral patterns make people mental prisoners of their respective societies. Somebody could face insults for frequenting "dabo and shiro wat" instead of "Teff enjerra and siga wat." Of course, besides the social approval, teff enjerra and siga are more palatable than others. However, this is not a sufficient reason for the demand of teff and siga to be price inelastic. Shifting to other even more nutritious, cheaper, and more environment friendly food products like vegetables, fruits, eggs, honey and beles helps save money.

If the people of Tigray are to be food secure, they have to learn to live within their means by abandoning the habit of consuming unaffordable food items simply because they cannot break their long endured habits in the face of glaring current realities.

III. In many cases, particularly for Tigray, the local or regional food markets may not have enough of the key food crops and animal products like teff, wheat, barley and larger livestock. The list includes onions, red chili, and several types of spices. These are shipped from markets outside Tigray from a few to several hundred kilometers of distance.

Food security is risky even for the more stable developed nations. Cleopatra of ancient Egypt controlled the mighty Roman Empire not much by her beauty but because as the main supplier of food grain to the Empire, she could starve it into surrender whenever she wanted to. Tigray purchases a long list of food products, notably teff  from the Amhara lands of Gondar, Gojjam and Wello. It also buys a myriad of manufactured food products, especially for its growing urban population, from the National Capital a thousand kilometers away. If there is perennial peace and stability in Ethiopia, love and respect among all the people, it would be economically rational in terms of the principle of "comparative advantage" to produce wherever there is a maximum benefit/cost ratio for a product and exchange in the National market.

Producing all of one’s own food regardless of the cost of production is not economic wisdom. Self-sufficiency becomes a strategic move when dependence for food security on insecure sources becomes ill-advised. Whatever their reasons for doing so Tigray saw with embitterment that its long endured inter-regional food trade could so easily be wrecked with impunity by hate-motivated groups of riotous Amhara youth at any day and time of their preference. The food security of Tigray cannot rely on such sources who never hesitate to use the food market as a war arsenal to subjugate the people of Tigray.

If it is not possible to produce enough of those food products for the region. No more time should be wasted to end the tyranny of the habits of consuming them and substitute them by other food products which lessen the vulnerability of the people. The people of Tigray are obliged to fine-tune their desynchronized food habits to the political, social, economic, and environmental realities of the time they are living in. That is how they can be safe and free!

By Dr. Yohannes Aberra Ayele

(Abridged)

Courtesy:  Aigaforum.


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