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As corn, soybean and wheat prices have surged over the past two months, many commodity watchers noted that rice prices were not trending higher. The latest projections reported in the Wall Street Journal, however, indicate that Asian rice will be subjected to considerable upward price pressure in the coming months. This is a worrying development for Cameroon and other African countries that depend on rice imports to meet their basic food needs.

If Cameroon’s rice import bill does balloon later this year, the country’s households that are vulnerable to food insecurity — nearly one in three according to the World Food Programme’s latest analysis — could be forced to navigate another price shock. During the 2008 food price crisis many of these families adopted the short-term coping strategy of buying a smaller amount of cheaper food, and also reduced the number of daily meals that they consumed. Disturbingly, the cheapest plate of food that could be purchased at urban markets in Cameroon during the first half of 2012 was rice with a little frozen fish and tomato: a dish entirely composed of imported food.

Over the same period, market prices of domestic staples Cameroonians have traditionally preferred remained stubbornly high. Supply side constraints such as poor roads and petty corruption have impeded the consistent and timely delivery of these foods, including plantain and manioc, to major cities. Hold-ups, spoilage and wastage associated with these constraints have driven the prices of traditional foods beyond the means of many vulnerable households, and have turned historic staples into special occasion foods for many more. Strong demand for Cameroonian plantain and manioc in Gabon has recently compounded this transition.

These realities do not bode well for consumers who have become increasingly reliant on rice imports by default, if not by desire. A generation ago, Cameroonians consumed rice infrequently. In 1975, for example, the country produced nearly 80 percent of its own rice needs. Subsequent efforts to attain national self-sufficiency, however, were derailed by government elites who diverted resources from national production schemes and bankrupted the state-owned rice production company.

As a result, when the Central African CFA franc was devalued in 1994, Cameroon produced less than 40 percent of the rice that it consumed. After the devaluation made rice imports relatively more expensive, the value and volume of rice imported to Cameroon declined and then stagnated.

The country’s rice imports only started to grow vigorously after world rice prices bottomed out in 2001. As imports became relatively less expensive, Central African trade in traditional staple foods rose, reducing the local availability of manioc and plantain. Facing higher prices for these staples – foods that had contributed to robust dietary diversity across much of the country – Cameroonians turned increasingly to rice.

Disturbingly, the cheapest plate of food that could be purchased at urban markets in Cameroon during the first half of 2012 was rice with a little frozen fish and tomato: a dish entirely composed of imported food.

According to a recent survey conducted by L’Association Citoyenne de Défense des Intérêts Collectifs, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) headed by civil society luminary Bernard Njonga, rice is now the most consumed food in all regions of Cameroon, primarily because it is cheap. The country’s rice imports rose from around 143,000 tonnes in 2000 to over 507,000 tonnes in 2011. Over the same period rice expenditures as a percentage of the country’s import bill doubled, and the volume of plantain and manioc exports increased significantly.

But Cameroon’s unsustainable dependence on Thai and Vietnamese rice is not inevitable. Domestic production is trending upward, despite speculation from Njonga and others that consumers are unsure of preparation techniques for local rice and don’t even know where to buy it. The government and its development ‘partners’ are also making concerted efforts to address domestic production through a comprehensive rice strategy.

In addition to Indian and Chinese interventions that I have noted previously, South Korea has disbursed development assistance for an irrigated rice pilot project. The World Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development have both financed projects relating to the organization of rice producers and to the production and distribution of improved seeds. Japanese cooperation has also provided resources for improved seeds, and the development of rice-specific extension services. Taken together, these new initiatives advance the calls made by heads of state in the Yaoundé Declaration to raise domestic agricultural production capacity.

Yet at the market, Cameroonian consumers continue to face an informal rule — the less money you have, the more imported rice you eat. Consumer sovereignty has been non-existent in markets where women have faced a ‘take it or leave it’ choice of buying imported rice or nothing at all. The new ‘preference’ of Cameroonians for 'quick' and 'easy' rice — lauded by some commentators — is consequently more apparent than real. Those whose interests are served by letting consumers continue to eat imported rice seem to have forgotten that plantains or local rice are just as easy to prepare.

Njonga’s NGO is currently waging a campaign for Cameroonians to realize the right to choose what they eat, and to eat what they produce. This effort will entail new resources directed to agriculture, infrastructure and governance-related initiatives that enable Cameroonians to recapture their historic dietary diversity. According to a recent scholarly article, one contributor to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD) has shown that a “half-hectare plot in Thailand can grow 70 species of vegetables, fruits and herbs, providing far better nutrition and feeding more people than a half-hectare plot of high-yielding rice.“ Could Cameroon draw lessons for a less rice-centric future from this example?

Moving forward, the Government of Cameroon should attempt to understand similar stories that challenge traditional notions of productivity, as it seeks to enable citizens to exercise control over diets and protect them from volatile world commodity prices. An effort to assess the applicability of new perspectives on sustainable agriculture could help the government to move beyond the conventional perspective on agricultural investment it recently articulated in a four-page advertisement in a Financial Times’ special report. In presenting the country’s agricultural future as a choice between extensive and intensive growth, the ad ignored a third way forward that IAASTD contributors and other agro-ecologists have been advocating for decades.

If rice prices do indeed rise over the coming months, the government will need to redouble its efforts to eliminate the de facto policy of letting Cameroonians eat increasing amounts of imported rice. Citizens were once able to choose rice when they wanted, and the political will to once again enable real choices at the market is currently lacking. Perhaps it will be found as more evidence of the environmental, health and social benefits of food sovereignty continues to emerge.

Adam Sneyd holds an Africa Initiative research grant and is an assistant professor of international political economy and development at the University of Guelph. He recently concluded new field research into food security in Cameroon and the results of his work will be published in early 2013.