Challenges to Agriculture and Food Security in South Asia

The SARCist, May, 2015

By Suresh P. Singh & Susan Mathew

Agriculture is the primary source of food. As per a FAO’s estimate 30 agri-crops provide 95 percent of human food-energy needs. Among these just five of them – rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum – provide about 60 percent. Strong food-energy linkage is indicative of the importance of agriculture for the survival of human beings and their food security. Better the state of agriculture, better the food security. As a natural corollary, to ensure food security, agriculture and food production need to be made sustainable.

South Asia, despite significant progress made with regard to food production over the last one decade, suffers from lack of accessibility, reinforced by lack of purchasing power. Millions of people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, as evidenced by the recent Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2014 prepared by International Food Policy Research Institute and NGOs Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide. All the countries in South Asia are ranked lowly. Three most populous countries of the region, namely India (55th), Pakistan and Bangladesh (jointly 57th) are ranked closely to each other in a list of 120 countries for which GHI has been prepared. The hunger situation in these countries is classified as serious. Situation in Sri Lanka, ranked 39 and Nepal ranked 44 is slightly better but worse than many Asian countries.

The lack of accessibility to food is, however, not because of lack of food availability. On the contrary, food grain production in the region has improved impressively in comparison to the period, a decade and half ago. As per a FAO estimate, cereals production in South Asia (six major countries namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka) during the period 2013 was over 404 million metric tonnes compared to a production of a little over 288 million metric tonnes in the year 2000, registering a compound annual growth rate of over two percent over the 13 year period.

Increase in production is reflected by improvement in per capita availability. Using FAO data source, per capita availability works out at about 525 grams per person per day, and translates into a calorie intake of more than 2400. Increase in per capita cereal availability is supported by average increase in yield for the six countries from 2649 kg per hectare in 2000 to 3397 kg per hectare in 2013. Per capita availability appears to be relatively better than many other regions, despite odds such as inefficient supply chain reinforced by leakages. This implies that agriculture in South Asia seems to have maintained its linear growth trend though at lower rate than increase in population.

The current situation especially with regard to food availability can be considered significant from the perspective of resilience of agriculture. As a result of increased food availability and some initiatives towards efficient food distribution, many of the countries have improved their position with regard to reducing poverty, hunger and malnutrition as a part of their millennium developments goals.

South Asia as a region has been able to reduce number of undernourished population to 276 million during 2012-14 in comparison to a level of 292 million during the early years of 1990s. However, at the country level, performance of the South Asian countries presents a mixed scenario. While Bangladesh and India have been able to reduce number of undernourished from 36 and 211 million during 1990-92 to 26 and 191 million respectively; situation has almost remained the same in Nepal and Sri Lanka, and has deteriorated in Afghanistan.

South Asia as a region is a witness to the fact that increases in production and per capita availability are no guarantee for equitable access to food. Food security in South Asia is constrained by several factors, which, inter alia, include food price variability and inefficient food supply chain arising out of leakages in the food distribution system.
All the countries in South Asia have for several years faced the challenges of high food price volatility in comparison to other regions. Food price volatility index prepared by FAO (which measures variability in the relative price of food) for the region stood at 13 in 2013, much higher than the volatility in 2000 (less than 10). What is more, it is more than that of Africa as a whole (4.7), let alone Sub-Saharan Africa (5.7). This is indicative of the potential exposure to food insecurity by the people of South Asia.

Leakage in food distribution system in the region is well recorded. For example, about 43 percent of the cereals meant for poor people in India reach open market through illegal means. Situation in other South Asian countries is not much different. According to an IFPRI estimate (2004) in Bangladesh the average leakage in the Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) program due to short ration is 7.5 percent. This amounts to 2.25 kilograms per month per beneficiary. In addition, leakage due to under coverage was 0.48 percent, taking the overall leakage in the VGD program is 8.01 percent of the total wheat allotment.

Addressing the issue of food insecurity and hunger in South Asia calls for cooperative approach and accelerated investments in agriculture. Among the South Asian countries, while most of them are food deficit and have higher trade dependencies, India is relatively better placed being a net exporter. It seems to be in a position to support other South Asian countries in improving food availability and accessibility. This could be achieved through increased trade in food and streamlining supply chain. Focused areas for investments could include infrastructure development such as warehousing and storage facilities, use of better technology leading to reduction in food wastage

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