When nations wage trade wars, farmers and consumers always lose—and Zambia is proving it all over again with a new and harmful export ban.
The landlocked African country of more than 17 million people recently made it illegal for its own farmers to sell soybeans and sunflower meal abroad. There’s an eager market for these products, especially here in Kenya, where we use them as ingredients in animal feed.
With the main source of our feed supplies cut off, however, the cost of animal feed has hit an all-time high. Compared to a year ago, the price of soybeans has doubled, and sunflower meal is up 40 percent.
For a farmer like me—I run a small dairy operation near Eldoret, in Usain Gishu County in the North Rift of Kenya—this is a devastating change that threatens my business and those of many other Kenyan livestock farmers. Animal feed millers in Kenya already have failed: 15 of them have shut down because they can’t keep up with the expenses, according to the Association of Kenya Feed Manufacturers (AKEFEMA).
Consumers will suffer as well. The price of food for everyone goes up as the cost of dairy production is increased significantly and ultimately transferred to the consumer through price increases of the final products.
The Zambian government may not care how its policies affect the economic health and food security of a fellow African nation. Zambia has plenty of its own problems, including a level of public debt that its newly elected president, Hakainde Hichilema, has called “unsustainable.” He’s now seeking a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund.
There’s a better kind of economic growth tool, of course: Zambia should find ways for foreign capital to flow into its domestic economy through the willing exchange of goods and services, such as by allowing its farmers to sell their soybeans and sunflower meal at market prices to Kenyans. This activity will help keep farmers and the whole country solvent at a time of financial stress.
Zambia’s policy is different, however. It now forbids its own farmers from earning a fair price for their labor and produce, presumably because it wants to keep the export-banned products affordable within its own borders. Officials also are frustrated that some farmers have sold these products without first acquiring export licenses.
Yet this command-and-control approach to economics and trade policy is a recipe for failure. Driving down the price of commodities gives farmers less of an incentive to produce them in the first place.
Don’t be surprised if Zambia soon joins Kenya in suffering from its own shortages of soybeans and sunflower meal, along with the price spikes that go hand-in-hand with scarcity.
Moreover, Zambia now has given its farmers a new incentive to ignore those export licenses. If they can’t sell what they grow for market prices at home, they’ll search for economic justice abroad, even if it means defying an export ban.
Meanwhile, Kenyan farmers need reliable trading partners. So we’ll look for new ones. If Zambia wants to sell to us again, we may not be interested. We need a steady source of animal-feed ingredients, preferably not vulnerable to the whims and disruptions of a government that doesn’t support the basic rules of supply and demand.
We Kenyans may not have much influence over Zambia, but we can affect the policies of our own government in Nairobi. There’s an obvious solution to our current dilemma: Kenya should relax and remove immediately the ban on the importation of GMO soybeans.
Right now, that’s against the lawâ€”but the law is obsolete, given that science has shown conclusively that GMOs are safe and healthy. Even Kenya has started to recognize this, through its recent decision to permit the commercialization of GMO cotton and cassava.
In many countries, GMOs are a conventional form of agriculture. More than 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States, for example, are GMO crops. Much the same is true among farmers in South Africa. We can buy what we need from them, or from growers in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Kenyans are ready for this reform, and AKEFEMA has called for it—and perhaps Zambia’s bad policy will lead to a good one here in Kenya.
The time has come to realize that agricultural trade restrictions always hurt farmers and consumers.
Zambia appears determined to learn this lesson the hard way.
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