Print Edition - 2016-01-29 | Oped
Food for thought
- The value of agricultural import now exceeds that of petroleum products
Jan 29, 2016-
Nepal’s dependence on imported food could become risky. We have seen from the energy crisis after India’s unofficial blockade that being dependent on other countries for the supply of essentials is not wise. The same scenario could repeat itself if we become dependent on imported food. This time around, we did not see real hunger because Nepal still produces a major part of basic food required in the country. But that luxury would soon end if the dependence on imported food deepens in future. And, given the existing realities, this is likely unless the country reduces food imports.
Nepal’s dependence on India for food imports has been growing over the years. Nepal imported Rs137.2 billion worth of food in the fiscal year 2014-15, which is about 17 percent of the total import of Rs784.6 billion. Total food imports from India have more than doubled in just six years—from Rs375.6 billion in 2009-2010 to Rs784.6 billion in 2014-15. The share of agricultural import has consistently been growing—from 11.8 percent to 17.5 percent in this six-year period. Now, the value of agricultural import exceeds that of petroleum products.
Externally dependent countries face greater risks in supply chain of food than in non-food products. This is because of the greater uncertainty in the food production process. Food production faces the vagaries of weather, ecological problems, and natural disasters. In such a case, food-supplying countries may have a shortfall in production in certain years and then they will ban the export of their food. In addition, there could be other political interests to ban export.
Natural disasters including the adverse impacts of climate change will surely cause an overall decline in production. Nepal primarily depends on India for food imports, and India has started to face huge challenges to increase farm productivity due to degradation of resources, water shortages and climate-change induced disasters. A UN report titled ‘Climate Change 2014 Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability’ even went on to say that severe stress on water resources and food-grain production in the future might force India to resort to armed conflicts with other neighbouring countries. The same report states that impacts of climate change would be severely felt in the Indo-Gangetic plain, where there could be severe droughts even in areas that flood regularly. Given this expected situation (and, in some cases this has already been seen), India’s concerns over water resources in its geo-political relations with Nepal are clearly understandable. Even on the global scale, it is expected that major conflicts will rise over the control of fresh water.
It is estimated that annually India may lose about 1.7 percent of its GDP because of climate change, and there could be natural disasters like floods as seen inUttarakhand in 2013. Such disasters would seriously disrupt the supply of food and other commodities. If this happens, Nepal will certainly not get food and other commodities from India.
While climate change and associated disasters could disrupt imports, it could also reduce food production within the country. So, Nepal faces a double whammy due to climate change—its own production will decline and it will not be able to import food when it is most needed.
As climate change will have major impact on the production of rice, the staple food of the country, it will have greater consequences on food security. Its production will stagger from climate change impacts like changes in the reliability of stream flow, a more intense and potentially erratic monsoon rainfall and flooding. Approximately, 64 percent of the cultivated areas in Nepal are heavily dependent on monsoon rainfall and changes in the time and duration of rainfall could significantly affect the overall agricultural production. In higher altitude areas, the population entirely relies on agriculture for their subsistence and thus, extreme climatic conditions will put these areas in economic stress. The development and spread of crop diseases, pests and weeds will also have an adverse impact on agriculture.
The need for greater self-dependence on food production is also imperative due to a possible reduction in foreign employment opportunities and consequent decline in remittances. At present, Nepal gets almost Rs600 billion a year from remittances. This is the main source of income to import food and other essentials. The changes in the economy of the countries in the Middle-East, saturation in construction of infrastructures, their interest to get more workers from Africa, and fall in the prices of petroleum products are expected to cause a decline in the demand for Nepali workers. Consequently, there will possibly be a reduction in remittance in-flow.
Time to change
It is true that not all countries produce enough food for their needs. For example, Singapore totally depends on imported food. But such countries have maintained a guaranteed supply. Moreover, their ability to maintain supplies from different sources is not restricted. But for Nepal, dependence on imported food is risky and unwise.
What is more distressing is that this sorry state of affairs in terms of food production does not have to be so. Nepal has the potential to produce sufficient food. But past policies of both the government and donor agencies certainly undermined this sector. A policy correction to increase food production in the country and social recognition of farming profession are urgently needed to reduce dependence on imported food. Otherwise, we might be experiencing food shortages and crises more frequently.
Adhikari is a social scientist
Published: 29-01-2016 09:00