Saturday, February 2, 2013

Food security means more than high output

KATHMANDU, Feb 2: Between 1.3 billion and 2.2 billion tons of food is wasted every year due to lost harvests, inefficient storage practices and wastage at retail as well as consumer levels, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has disclosed.

This shows that food insecurity is caused not by insufficient production but by poor distribution and imprudent management of available food. As per the widely accepted definition, food security involves not only availability and access to food but also affordability and fulfillment of the dietary needs of people.

Nepal reported a more than 166 percent rise in cereal imports in 2011/12, when production of cereals stood at a record 7.57 million tons, prompting officials to claim a grain surplus of 886,000 tons.

Nepal is headed for a food surplus of 720,000 tons (net 563,000 tons in edible form) in the current fiscal year also.
But, imports of food went up alarmingly by 235 percent during the first five months of the current fiscal year compared to the same period last year. Some 27 districts are in food insecurity due to deficit in supplies.

The trends in Nepal also show that merely maintaining a surplus can´t ensure food security and stop imports.

On one hand, the country is enjoying a food surplus of hundreds of thousands of tons, and on the other more than two dozen districts are still facing food insufficiency. A porous border, price differentiation between markets in India and Nepal and weak distribution are blamed for mismatch in availability and distribution of food.

“Government data shows a national aggregate situation of comfortable food security. But we have seen significant incidence of food insecurity at household level due to weak distribution,” said Dr Hari Dahal, a food security expert.

Also, a significant use of maize for animal and poultry feed, preference for rice in daily meals, and less use of wheat, buckwheat and barley as staples even in food insecure districts are major causes of pressure on rice in consumption patterns.

Government estimates put consumption of rice at 90 kg, maize and wheat at 45 kg each and other cereals at 11 kg out of the total per capita food consumption of 191kg per year.

Preference for rice in the mountain districts and other food deficit districts has added to the difficulty in maintaining food security.

“In these areas potatoes, barley and buckwheat are squandered in large amounts out of preference for rice,” said Dahal, who is also executive director of the Karnali Development Commission.

During the last 25 years, Nepal suffered food deficits for 15 years and food surpluses for 10 years. “Lack of proper distribution of available food in needy areas also led to food insecurity even during times of food surplus,” said Bholaman Singh Basnet, who has long been watching the food security situation in Nepal.

Normally, fluctuations in farm output directly affect the food supplies, creating food insecurity among vulnerable populations. However, the situation in Nepal has emerged differently in the last two years.

While officials claim that Nepal has a comfortable food surplus, more than two dozen districts are still under food deficit and require airlifting of thousands of tons of rice at a cost of almost a billion rupees per year.

Imports of cereal goods rose by 166 percent to Rs 13.41 billion during fiscal year 2011/12 when Nepal reported a record 7.57 million tons of cereal output, leading to a comfortable surplus of 886,000 tons.

The government has reported cereal production of 6.81 million tons in the current fiscal year, a drop of 10 percent or 0.75 million tons. Total imports of cereal during the first five months of the fiscal year rose to Rs 6.79 billion, a staggering 80 percent more than the amount recorded a year earlier.

Nepal Rastra Bank data shows that imports of Indian rice during the five months jumped to Rs 2.87 billion, an increase of 235 percent compared to the same period in the earlier year.

“Despite an impressive spike in cereal production, we are still not in a position to meet demand due to increasing consumer preference for rice. However, imports of rice varieties such as basmati can´t be helped as these are not produced in our country,” said Basnet. The demand for food stands at 5.3 million tons per year.

Given the mismatch in domestic production and imports of cereal foods, some officials are not convinced by food security data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture Development (MoAD).

“Data compiled by MoAD is not based on scientific assessment of production and consumption. So we see huge mismatch in domestic production of food grains and imports,” Deepak Subedi, joint secretary at the Ministry of Commerce and Supplies (MoCS) told Republica.

Price differentiation between Nepal and India also encourages cross-border movement of goods and is a major cause of mismatch in production and imports, said Subedi, who looks after the supplies division at MoCS.

“Imports of grains can go up due to price gaps in markets in the two countries, even if sufficient supplies are maintained in our market,” added Subedi.

Tarai, the country´s grain basket, can be flooded with Indian food commodities when prices are lower than in Indian border markets.

Prices of food and beverages in India have outstripped prices in Nepal, prompting illegal exports to India.

During the first five months of the current fiscal year, prices of food and beverages, which command around 47 percent weightage in the overall consumer price basket, have gone up 8.7 percent.

“Higher prices in Indian markets prompt outflows of Nepali grain, which tend to create a supply deficit even if we enjoy a food surplus,” added Subedi.

Published on 2013-02-03 04:01:37

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