Growing food insecurity

Take immediate measures, otherwise it will give us a shock of the century even when pandemic is not there
Growing food insecurity
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One of the major setbacks of the Covid-19 pandemic has been reversing the development gains achieved over the years. The pandemic-induced lockdowns has not only complicated survival of millions of the vulnerable households, but has also pushed millions from low and middle income segments into poverty segments where food insecurity has been unnerving them for quite some time now.

However, it is also a fact that growing levels of acute food insecurity are not new phenomena. Of course, outbreak of the pandemic reduced incomes, left millions out of jobs and massively disrupted economic supply chains, but millions of populations across the countries were already facing chronic and acute hunger due to various factors including conflict, socio-economic conditions, natural hazards, climate change, etc.

Today, food security has emerged as a critical issue. We all know access to healthy food and optimal nutrition for all is at the core of food security. Or we can say food security is dependent on a healthy and sustainable food system. When we talk of the food system, it is food availability, food accessibility and food affordability that constitute the pillars of food security.

However, a lot of imbalances are visible in our food system as people have been facing difficulty to have physical and economic access to adequate amounts of nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate foods. Shortage of food has even hit the people who carve out living by producing food.

Notably, the virus, in fact, has hampered the efforts to control the already growing food insecurity and is simultaneously making the vulnerable households to struggle for want of proper food. With no immediate end of the pandemic in sight, food insecurity is going to swell as the biggest issue confronting the vulnerable populations across the countries.

If we look at the Agricultural Commodity Price Index, we find uncontrolled steep hikes in prices owing to the strong demand. Data shows that as of mid-July, 2021, the index was approximately 30% higher than in January 2020. The prices of maize, wheat and rice were about 43%, 12% and 10% above their January 2020 levels. Prices of these agriculture commodities are witnessing unprecedented surge despite the global production outlook for major grains has remained good.

So what is at the moment a major threat to food security? The pandemic has created complicated economic uncertainties. On one hand, millions of households have been rendered struggling for want of finances as their earning hands have either lost jobs or have faced drastic cuts in their salaries/incomes. On the other hand, prices of essential commodities, especially the food items, have gone up considerably, making it difficult for the affected households to have sufficient quantity and quality of food for their consumption. The last two years of the pandemic have been most miserable for them. Precisely, we are experiencing high food price inflation at the retail level, leaving a huge impact on the low and middle income segment of population as they spend a major portion of their income on food.

Now, let me share some startling facts which reveal the dangerous levels of food insecurity gripping populations across the countries. A recent UN report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World reveals that “between 720 and 811 million people in the world went hungry in 2020. Looking at the middle of the projected range (768 million), around 118 million more people were facing chronic hunger in 2020 than in 2019. Using a different indicator that tracks year-round access to adequate food, nearly 2.37 billion people (or 30% of the global population) lacked access to adequate food in 2020 – a rise of 320 million in just one year.”

To be precise, food insecurity is going to be one of the biggest challenges to confront in the coming times as the kind of economic upheaval triggered by the virus is not going to end in the next two to three years. Even as we have National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013 (also 'Right to Food Act') in place which was signed into law on September 12, 2013, with an aim to provide subsidized food grains to about 67 percent of India's 1.2 billion people, the food insecurity issues were cropping up regularly much before the virus caused massive economic disruptions. Among other things, there have been complaints that the benefits envisaged under the NFSA are not uniformly percolating down to the deserving people. Now the pandemic has further widened the gaps, denying the otherwise guaranteed food security to the deserving segment of the populations.

In the context of our own state, we are fast losing our food resources. Uncontrolled conversion of the agriculture and horticulture land for non-agriculture purposes including setting up of commercial complexes, residential house and colonies here has come up as a serious issue. During the last two decades, we have lost over half-a-lakh acres of agricultural land to these non-agricultural activities. This has direct bearing on our food security as this conversion of arable land is threatening our self-sufficiency in food grains. Today, we are importing more than 40% of food grains and over 25% of vegetables to meet our requirements.

From a rural point of view, land conversion is simply loss of prime agricultural land, reduced agricultural jobs and wasted investment in irrigation infrastructure. This simply translates into dwindling agricultural production and ultimately all this leads to a threat to food security.

Precisely, in a situation like ours, diversion of agricultural land will have adverse implications. It’s a direct threat to our food security. There will be no end to food inflation and expensive food imports.Less food production will even progressively increase the cost of the public distribution system (PDS) leading to weakening of the food security supply chain. In the long-run, there will be inflationary pressures as the price of food items will push up considerably. Ultimate impact will be on common people who will witness a drop in their productivity and income levels. Thus, further worsening the poverty situation.

At the moment we cannot afford a slow response to these threats to our food security. Land conversion is a phenomenon that is almost unavoidable during economic development and population growth periods. However, uncontrolled land conversion will only lead to food scarcity. We have to anticipate our weakening agrarian economy. Remember, we spend a major portion (up to 70 per cent) of our income on food. That means even a modest rise in food prices can turn into a life-threatening proportion.

Meanwhile, World Food Day, celebrated across the globe on October 16, assumes greater significance as the Covid-19 has pushed the food insecurity levels up to the dangerous levels. It’s a major challenge to achieve food security in the present times. Let me quote some “transformation pathways”, listed in a multi agency report reproduced by the World Health Organization (WHO), to ensure food security. The pathways include integrating humanitarian, development and peace-building policies in conflict areas by invoking social protection measures to prevent households from selling meagre assets in exchange for food; scaling up climate resilience across food systems and strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity through in-kind or cash support programs. It also emphasizes tackling poverty and structural inequalities and strengthening food environments and changing consumer behaviour.

However, in the fight against food insecurity it is the governance mechanism which should be enabling in nature to proactively roll out the transformation pathways. It’s not the time to use pandemic as a pretext to remain as a silent spectator to the alarmingly growing hunger and malnutrition, but act and take the challenge head-on. Otherwise, the intensity of growing levels of food insecurity will give us a shock of the century even when a pandemic is not there.

(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)

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