Development, Trade and industry, Food & water, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

23 May 2019

Rapid changes to a cash-based food market are causing chaos for families in rural Nepal. A more holistic approach to agriculture policy is crucial to easing food security woes, Rishikesh Pandey writes.

Despite having been in a food surplus only a couple of decades ago, Nepal now faces a serious sustenance crisis. Today, the Global Hunger Index classifies it as a ‘seriously [food] insecure’ country.

Our study published in the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies journal focused specifically on food insecurity in rural Nepal in Meghauli in Tarai, Lumle in Middle-Mountains, and Upper-Mustang in Trans-Himalaya. Data was collected from 360 households using the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale (HFIAS) questionnaire which further asked about household production and deficiencies in annual household budgets.

Results showed that over a third of households are food insecure with the problem being acute in the Middle-Mountains and in Trans-Himalaya.

Despite the HFIAS method being rapid in its assessment of food security, it still suffers from several weaknesses. Most notably, it fails to account for the differences in how the terms ‘food variety’, ‘preferred food items’, and ‘reduced amount of food intake’ are subjectively understood.

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Because these terms lack relevance in Nepali rural households, survey-respondents may consider themselves ‘food secure’ enough even only with the slightest bit of food. This hides underlying risks of malnutrition in producer-consumer households.

Most households in the Kaligandaki Basin are producer-consumers. Farms and local social-ecological systems serve as the main sources of food in rural Nepali communities. Arable land is vital for these households even if only small in size.

However, only three-quarters of households in Tarai, followed by two-fifths of Trans-Himalaya, and less than one-sixth in Middle-Mountains, produce a sufficient amount of food.

Regardless, households are prone to exchanging their crops for cash immediately after harvesting crops – particularly in the Tarai – to pay off any production debt, further increasing their dependency on market-bought food. Diversity in food has been declining and price-control in the market has had grave implications for food and nutritional security.

Households without enough food spend a bulk of their annual income – nearly 75 per cent – buying food elsewhere. A steady flow of cash is becoming increasingly essential for rural households, which has historically been uncommon. This has proven problematic.

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Growth in tourism in Lumle and Upper-Mustang has seen more households engaging in entrepreneurship, while those without the resources to do so choose labour migration abroad – most often to the Middle-Mountain and Tarai.

How food is used, which varies depending on the area, contributes significantly to food security. Food stability, however, has not been accounted for in Nepal, probably due to the country’s initial inability to ensure availability, access, and utilisation.

Nepali food policy mostly relies on food availability from domestic production and imports, while food security is assessed on individuals’ daily intake of kilocalories. The Agriculture Perspective Plan 1997-2017, various Periodic Plans, and the National Agriculture Policy 2004 have emphasised a system of uniform, area-specific crop production, known as One Village – One Product.

When it comes to increasing household food security, the size of landholdings is not as important as their potential for cropping intensification. In Tarai, greater opportunities for crop intensification and off-farm employment are needed to provide households with income; in the Middle-Mountains and the Trans-Himalaya, policies must concentrate on in situ development opportunities.

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Furthermore, households that obtain a major share of their livelihoods from remittances are more likely to be food secure across all regions. This is evidence that Nepali food policy must recognise the importance of cash income even in rural communities.

The market is not a panacea to Nepal’s food security issues – this idea has been forced onto marginalised rural communities since the 1960s. Not only have traditional food items been slowly replaced, but with high transport costs, disparity between the haves and have-nots has only been increasing.

Global food security discourse has moved past a narrow focus on food supply, but policies lag behind. Governments still fail to address pressing matters of spatial clusters and community-specific food insecurity issues. With market prices only increasing, poorer households are finding it increasingly difficult to access food.

Poorer rural households in marginal regions are not supported in developing sustainable ways to ensure food security even by the most recent Agriculture Development Strategy (2016-2035) and financial access schemes. Maintaining, repairing, and restoring hill-agriculture, as well as landlessness and remittance-dependence remain critical issues. Forest conservation policies further restrict an increase in livestock-based food supply.

All of these issues demand better integration between food security policy and other social, environmental, and economic policies to avoid long-term stagnation in agricultural development. Only through this integration can Nepal reduce the risk of becoming over-dependent on unsustainable practices.

This piece is based on the authors’ paper in Asia & the Pacific Policy StudiesAn application of the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale to assess food security in rural communities. The full paper is free to read and download.

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