South Asia is home to almost half of the world’s poor and malnourished. The region is the second most food insecure region, after Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the 2013 Global Food Security Index. Sri Lanka is by far the most food secure nation in the region, ranking 60th globally with a score of 48.6 on the Index. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh rank 70, 75, and 81 respectively, out of a total of 107 countries. Nepal’s situation is by far the worst in South Asia, ranking 84th on this list.
Feeding the hungry
In this context, agriculture has a vital role to play in addressing poverty and rural development, apart from ensuring food security for the masses. However, the region’s leaders have not been able to play up the importance of agricultural development in reducing poverty, food insecurity, and the negative impacts of climate change.
Investment in research and development is essential to ensure food security. Agriculture research has once again started to gain impetus globally, driven by rising demands for food and fuel, price volatility, climate change, dwindling resources for agricultural production, and soaring input costs. Global R&D spending in agriculture increased from $26 billion in 2000 to $31.7
billion in 2008.
However, South Asia lacks a well-designed agenda for investing in research and technology. The region remains far behind in R&D activities relative to global levels. It also remains greatly dependent on foreign innovations and funds. With a population of around 1.3 billion, India has only 167 government-funded agriculture research centres, which is the highest in the region, followed by Bangladesh and Nepal with a tally of 54 and eight respectively. Research and technology in the region still suffers from underinvestment, poor infrastructure, and an inadequate supply of qualified researchers.
As South Asian nations are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly their agriculture sector, Saarc needs to collaborate to cope with challenges. Since the production and productivity of agricultural crops depend on specific conditions, the region needs to work on climate change adaptation. To move forward on the adaptation front, stakeholders in South Asia must be aware of climate change impacts at the local level.
Therefore, policies must focus on poor, small, and marginal farmers. Investments should be made in technology, seeds, and the efficient use of natural resources to help these farmers cope with the adverse impacts of climate change. The region needs to allocate enough resources to adaptation strategies suitable to each country’s needs. The facilitation of trans-boundary learning to effectively disseminate knowledge and techniques is required.
The Saarc Food Bank is considered a positive initiative in this regard. The concept of this Bank is to help member nations deal with crises resulting from natural calamities such as earthquakes, floods, droughts, and cyclones. Though the Food Bank was initiated a long time ago, it was only given approval to adopt a regional approach to collective food security at the 14th Saarc Summit in Islamabad in 2007. The Bank had doubled its stock of food grains to approximately 485,000 metric tonnes (MT) by 2012, according to the Saarc Secretariat, to which India made the largest contribution (306,000 tonnes).
The Bank also plays a vital role in stabilising food prices, promoting regional collaboration on food security, providing food of fair quality, increasing utilisation, and reducing vulnerability due to food insecurity. However, various problems have also been found in its operation. Impractical triggers, unclear price setting mechanisms, and a lack of clear linkages to public distribution systems have been identified as some of its design faults. The operational modalities of the Saarc Food Bank need to be made more pragmatic if member states expect to benefit from it in their hours of need. For instance, the requirement of an 8 percent shortfall in production to gain access to the Bank is unnecessary and impractical. Bangladesh, for example, was not able to import rice from India neither during the emergency period nor during food shortages due to the clumsy and impractical operational modalities of the Bank. Both political commitment and cooperation at the bureaucratic level are required for countries in need to benefit from the Food Bank.
Considering the population size of the member states, the stakeholders have also been urged to increase the volume of the food stock to at least one million metric tonnes for it to be effective. This initiative needs to be more broad-based and responsive to cope with the challenges of disaster mitigation. Saarc could also learn from the Asean group, which has set up a highly sustainable food bank for its member states in the context of global prices and supply fluctuations.
The effectual operation of the Seed Bank is also needed to preserve, exchange, and spread seeds across the region. Likewise, the Saarc Agriculture Centre needs to enrich its capacity to support regional agricultural collaboration and R&D.
Trade can also sway food security in the region, as it expands markets and opens consumer access to additional sources to supplement domestic production. Access to greater markets can also benefit farmers, supporting their incomes through the export sales of surplus. The political economy factor plays an important role in the liberalisation of agricultural trade in the region. An objective assessment of gains and losses across different segments of the population, from increased trade in agriculture and food products, is needed.
Focus on food
In South Asia, most countries are net importers of food, except for India and Pakistan. According to statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), total exports were about 11,895 thousand MT during 2009-11, whereas imports to the region totaled 9,059 thousand MT during the same period. If the region simplifies procedures and removes tariffs and non-tariff barriers, intra-regional trade under Safta or bilateral agreements—together with a functional food bank—can contribute to a relatively more food secure region.
In this context, the 18th Saarc Summit should not focus only on political and human security issues, but also on the region’s agriculture and food security. By regularly organising interactions and conferences, the region’s civil societies have already warned leaders not to delay in the implementation of already-signed agreements, which otherwise will fail to help millions of South Asians survive the hazardous impacts of climate change.
Saarc leaders signed agreements to establish the Food Bank and Seed Bank in 2004; the Thimpu Statement on Climate Change in 2010; Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters and the Saarc Comprehensive Framework on Disaster Management in 2011; but implementation has been very weak. It is time for leaders to reaffirm their commitments and pledge a coordinated regional response to meet the challenges of climate change, natural disasters, and food insecurity. Political consensus, effective coordination, and appropriate budget allocations are essential for the effective implementation of policies and legislations.