Although it depends heavily on the oil industry for its budgetary revenues, Nigeria is predominantly still an agricultural society. Approximately 70 percent of the population engages in agricultural production at a subsistence level. Agricultural holdings are generally small and scattered. Agriculture provided 41 percent of Nigeria's total gross domestic product (GDP) in 1999. This percentage represented a normal decrease of 24.7 percent from its contribution of 65.7 percent to the GDP in 1957. The decrease will continue because, as economic development occurs, the relative size of the agricultural sector usually decreases.
Nigeria's wide range of climate variations allows it to produce a variety of food and cash crops . The staple food crops include cassava, yams, corn, coco-yams, cow-peas, beans, sweet potatoes, millet, plantains, bananas, rice, sorghum, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. The leading cash crops are cocoa, citrus, cotton, groundnuts (peanuts), palm oil, palm kernel, benniseed, and rubber. They were also Nigeria's major exports in the 1960s and early 1970s until petroleum surpassed them in the 1970s. Chief among the export destinations for Nigerian agricultural exports are Britain, the United States, Canada, France, and Germany.
A significant portion of the agricultural sector in Nigeria involves cattle herding, fishing, poultry, and lumbering, which contributed more than 2 percent to the GDP in the 1980s. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization 1987 estimate, there were 12.2 million cattle, 13.2 million sheep, 26.0 million goats, 1.3 million pigs, 700,000 donkeys, 250,000 horses, and 18,000 camels, mostly in northern Nigeria, and owned mostly by rural dwellers rather than by commercial companies. Fisheries output ranged from 600,000 to 700,000 tons annually in the 1970s. Estimates indicate that the output had fallen to 120,000 tons of fish per year by 1990. This was partly due to environmental degradation and water pollution in Ogoniland and the Delta region in general by the oil companies.
Decline in agricultural production in Nigeria began with the advent of the petroleum boom in the early 1970s. The boom in the oil sector brought about a distortion of the labor market. The distortion in turn produced adverse effects on the production levels of both food and cash crops. Governments had paid farmers low prices over the years on food for the domestic market in order to satisfy urban demands for cheap basic food products. This policy, in turn, progressively made agricultural work unattractive and enhanced the lure of the cities for farm workers. Collectively, these developments worsened the low productivity, both per unit of land and per worker, due to several factors: inadequate technology, acts of nature such as drought, poor transportation and infrastructure, and trade restrictions.
As food production could not keep pace with its increasing population, Nigeria began to import food. It also lost its status as a net exporter of such cash crops as cocoa, palm oil, and groundnuts. According to U.S. Department of State FY2001 Country Commercial Guide, Nigeria's total food and agricultural imports are valued at approximately US$1.6 billion per year. Among the major imports from the United States are wheat, sugar, milk powder, and consumer-ready food products.
Efforts since the late 1970s to revitalize agriculture in order to make Nigeria food self-sufficient again and to increase the export of agricultural products have produced only modest results. The Obasanjo administration, however, has made agriculture the highest priority of its economic policy.