Food Security in South Asia

Positioned at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, Lake Chad drainage basin encompasses 8 countries – Algeria, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Central African Republic, Cameroon and Nigeria. At one point, Lake Chad was the size of Israel, but over a period of 40 years from 1963-2013, Lake Chad decreased by 95% in area of extent. The civilizations around its periphery became deprived of their traditional sources of sustenance from fishing and farming. Refugees from poverty-stricken north-eastern Nigeria, which borders the lake, began streaming away from the area years ago, in search of work and a livelihood. This led to the formation of the terrorist movement group Boko Haram (which means “Western education is forbidden”). The devastating civil war that began in Syria in March 2011 was triggered off by a long history of conflicts over water rich lands in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Levant regions. None of these struggles have originated because of political freedom, sensitive warfare intelligence or even religious zealots. These conflicts of the modern world unveil a bigger problem – a problem of food insecurity. These are wars being fought by very hungry people.

In a period where, the challenges to escalate food production is amplified by rapid population growth, food insecurity may be the next Black Swan. South Asia has five times the inhabitants of the United States in an expanse that is only one-half the magnitude of the United States. Fundamentally most of Southeast Asia lies between the tropics, and so there are similarities in climate as well as livelihoods and food consumption patterns that hover around agriculture as the main source of revenue. Hence the food production patterns are also similar. On a closer look, it can be observed that, the gluts that occur in the food market are because of simple malfunctions – like resistance to large scale mechanisation and land fragmentation. A larger picture shows that food insecurity in South Asia is enveloped in many more bubbles.

FAO describes food security in four terms related to food – Availability, Access, Utilisation & Vulnerability. In South Asia, food availability is not the key problem. The September 2014 issue of Food Price Watch reports that international food prices have dropped to a four-year low, and in the last four months, these declines have fully reversed the price increases observed between January and April 2014. Global food prices increased 10% between June and July 2012 with staples such as wheat increasing 25% in the period. This trend can be seen in South Asian market also. According to the GIEWS Country Briefs, other than India, all the other South Asian countries are importing cereals for consumption. So the domestic consumption demand is being met by hook or crook. Then why does South Asia have the second-highest 2014 Global Hunger Index regional score of 18.1. So the albatross is access and utilisation to consumptive foods from the market chains.

Different mechanisms have been adapted in South Asia for public food distribution systems. But all of them function under the same principle – regulated government distribution of cereals and pulses through the relevant food and agriculture departments that the nation has in excess for that financial year. The distribution chain is quite often composed of ancient logistical frameworks. These frameworks might not be even pertinent to a population which is increasingly migrating towards the urban space. And this is why while escalating food prices risks inflation in the South Asian countries, the poor are forced to compromise their nutrition. So on one hand, life-styles, incomes and social organization determine levels of consumption; on the other hand the technology being used for access to food is not contemporary. Add to this cooking pot a mixture of poverty and Malthusian population principles which inadvertently act as the multiplier that regulates the aggregate impact.

As per GIEW Country Statistics, India can contribute as a major exporter of cereals to South Asia. India still has its own demons like institutional inefficiency, crumbling trust of people, waning quality of food being distributed and inadequate backward linkages to farmer’s support systems, to handle. In due time, India will have to compete with more scaling up of food production systems, but in the meantime, we can concentrate on methodologies of efficiency. Our slow and steady public distribution system can still be the tortoise who won the race, provided, we take some monitoring and evaluation breaks.

As citizens of Westeros say, “The winter is coming” and we need to be prepared for the winter!

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