Striving for Food Security
Fishing wars hamper more than just geo-politics.
Interestingly, the first and foremost target of The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) developed by the United Nations, is the reduction of global poverty and hunger by half. While the Asia-Pacific region has seen much success in this regard, South Asia continues to face a grave scenario of food insecurity. According to the World Food Summit of 1996, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
From this definition, it can be deduced that food security depends on three major factors: physical access to food, economic access to food and the food in question being sufficient, safe and nutritious. South Asia, and in particular Bangladesh, currently suffers from a severe food crisis because of problems related to all three aspects.
Physical access to food is directly linked to climate change, since agricultural productivity is primarily dependent upon climate. Given South Asia’s geographical location, the region suffers extremely from climate change. Global warming has not only affected cropping seasons but has also resulted in the rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers. These worrying changes have surged up flooding and raised sea levels, gravely impacting rural livelihoods in the region.
Furthermore, poverty is deep and widespread throughout the region. Approximately 600 million South Asians live on less than US$1.25 a day. During climatic crises, millions of poor people are disproportionately affected, mainly because of their heavy reliance on natural vegetation for sustenance. Climate change in Bangladesh continues to adversely affect agricultural production. Since millions of Bangladeshis rely heavily on natural resources from coastal areas for sustenance, rising sea levels have seriously threatened their livelihoods.
Apart from physical access, economic access to food is also an important factor that contributes to food security. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Global Food Security Index 2012, Bangladesh is the least food secure country in South Asia. The index assesses people’s ability to afford food along with availability and quality of food in 105 countries around the globe. Bangladesh is not only the world’s third poorest population af- ter China and India but its hungry population of over 60 million people is larger than most other nations. Nearly half of Bangladesh’s children are underweight, making it one of the most severe cases of malnutrition in the world. While Bangladesh may certainly have more food than it had thirty years back, almost half of Bangladesh is still far from being food secure.
Rising food prices contribute greatly to rising food insecurity by impacting economic access to food. As EIU’s report says, “Global food prices rose three times as fast as inflation in the last decade, improving millions at a time when poverty relief captured the world’s attention. Huge price swings for wheat, maize, soybeans and rice staples crops for much of the world, made matters worse, disrupting markets and harming both producers and consumers.” Since Bangladesh faces a production deficit in fruits, vegetables, pulses as well as milk and meat, it is forced to import a number of these highly priced agricultural products, despite being an agrarian economy itself. Furthermore, it also faces a decline in the production of fish, which will need to rise by three percent if the national requirement is to be met by 2015. This inefficien-
cy in production is why Bangladesh faces the most serious threat to food security in terms of availability.
Some of the persisting problems of increasing crop production involve decreasing soil productivity, inefficient water and fertilizer use, inadequate supply of quality seeds, low labor productivity, and higher input price. Furthermore, the institutional capacity of research, extension and seed production systems in terms of facilities and human and financial resources have weakened and are not geared to address the emerging problems. Weaknesses also persist in planning, coordination, monitoring, resource management and partnership with the private sector and NGOs. These problems are more prominent in the livestock sub-sector compared to crops.
In terms of the third aspect of food security that depends on nutrition, Bangladesh again falls short. WFP’s VAM (Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping) indicates that poverty is not necessarily the cause of malnutrition. Additional and often stronger determinants of this are lack of awareness and inappropriate cultural practices. Poor access to water, sanitation and increasing arsenic contamination (which is linked to the over-exploitation of water tables) further aggravates this.
Faced with the challenges of an increasing population, decreasing availability of agricultural land and increasing food prices, Bangladesh needs to adopt a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the situation. It can start by taking measures towards increasing productivity; learning from recent experiments in rice production and cutting down on huge yields losses by reducing wastage. Furthermore, it can diversify its food basket to attain self-sufficiency in the non-cereal food grains. It can also improve utilization by educating the population on nutrition. Huge improvements in food security can be achieved through improving knowledge on food-based nutrition (right methods of cooking, balanced diet, from locally and cheaply available foodstuffs). Promotion of fortification of foodstuff can also be done as it provides a proven and cost-effective strategy of dealing with micronutrient deficiencies. Lastly, access to food can be improved through government strategies such as providing supplementary nutrition to children (such as mid-day meals in schools) and pregnant women, the provision of unemployment and pension benefits and development of food banks and food distribution systems for the indigent people (Safety Nets). By implementing these policies, Bangladesh can hope to effectively deal with its alarming food crisis. Fatima Siraj is currently pursuing a BBA degree at the Institute of Business Administration. She frequently writes on marketing and social issues.