Food and sovereignty

  • The systemic failure in Nepal’s agrarian economy has led to problems of low quality food distribution
- Jagannath Adhikari
Food and sovereignty

Jul 23, 2015-

Food crisis has always been in the news in Nepal particularly since 1990. But after the earthquake, food crisis has been more severe due to obvious reasons. Of late, the issue of food-aid resurfaced when an UN agency was found to have distributed low quality food in a few locations. Further, the issue became a matter of national prestige when a UN representative who had come to Nepal to investigate into this matter threatened to withdraw the food-aid coming into Nepal and take it elsewhere. Some media in Kathmandu reported that this threat is akin to encroachment of Nepal’s sovereignty. This is an example of how a country dependent on external food-aid can become vulnerable to losing its political sovereignty.

Linked to independence

The issues of food-deficit, food-aid and its link with political sovereignty are, in fact, some of the surfacial symptoms of deeper problems in our agrarian economy. Unless we make our agrarian economy robust and ensure a stronger livelihood base for the people, we will continue to face such problems. At some point in the future when this problem becomes severe, it could even pose a threat to national sovereignty. This is also not an isolated example from Nepal. Many countries, which have been dependent on external food, have indeed lost their relative independence.

It is precisely due to this reason that ‘food’ became a national security issue. Immediately after the Second World War, western countries realised that dependence on external food could become a threat to national security and sovereignty. So they started to give extra incentives to their citizens to produce more food. These incentives came in in the form of subsidies to farmers to produce more, guaranteed purchase of food and social and health benefits to farmers. This encouraged farmers to produce more and the government started stockpiling food. These stockpiles were maintained to curb food crisis during periods of low food production. The impact of these policies can still be seen in Europe and North America, where farmers continue to get subsidies and other benefits from the government whether they are in production or not. Of course, there are now debates on whether this is an economically efficient way of keeping farmers engaged in food production. But, there is also a realisation that ‘food’ and ‘food-production activities’ cannot be judged purely from the perspective of economic efficiency as it is also a social, cultural and political issue.

Right in writing

Realising the adverse consequences of dependence on external food, the concept of ‘food sovereignty’ was coined in South America. Via Campesina or Peasant’s Movement, is largely responsible for making this concept popular. According to this notion, each nation has the complete right to formulate its agricultural policies including food-aid and food-trade. This policy of ‘food sovereignty’ evolved through a rather bitter experience of interventions from the corporate sector and the countries exporting food which eroded local capacity to produce food and failed to engage farmers in their traditional occupation.

Nepal also adopted the policy of food sovereignty in its Interim Constitution 2007. Part 4, Article 33 (H) of this constitution recognises food sovereignty along with employment, shelter, health and education as the right of the people to be established in the policy framework of the state of Nepal. Even after this provision, the food security situation of Nepal has consistently been deteriorating and internal food production has not been able to keep pace with the rising population. As a result, the import of food is growing.

In last 10 months of the fiscal year 2014/15, Nepal imported Rs 96 billion worth of agricultural products. As a result of the quake, more food could be imported in the coming months. Similarly, the amount of food-aid received particularly through the UN agencies and various INGOs has also been increasing. One could argue that the rising consumption of food might have led to higher demand of food in the market. While this could be true in some sections of the Nepali society, it is not so for many people. Studies have shown that nutritional outcomes have improved only slightly over the past decade or so.

Fault with us

Dependence on external food also implies that the quality of food is not always assured especially in a country like Nepal where food-quality monitoring, transportation and storage systems are poor. If the food has to be brought from afar and if it is to be stored for a long time, it is natural for the food quality to deteriorate. In many of the foods that are processed and packaged, to extend its shelf life or for transportation, preservatives are added which deteriorates quality. From this perspective, it is obvious that food distributed by external agencies cannot be of the same quality as locally-produced fresh food. So, such food distribution programmes should only be limited to an emergency situation, for instance, the April Earthquake. But, in our case, this has become a regular feature.

In sum, it is our systemic failure in agrarian economy that has led to problems like low quality food distribution and other related political and social issues including the encroachment of national sovereignty if John Ging’s—director of the Operational Division at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs— threat ‘not to accuse UN agencies for low quality food distribution or else it is will take food to Iraq and Syria’ is interpreted that way. Similarly, experience in matters of food sovereignty shows that just having a provision in the constitution is not enough. If the government actually wants to ensure food sovereignty, it can just act on its commitment to improve the lives of its people.

Adhikari is a social scientist researching various aspects of development

Published: 24-07-2015 08:12

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