The geopolitics of food
Already reeling from child hunger and wars in Yemen and across Saharan and central Africa, the developing world is now bracing for the full impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on food supply.
Nearly two months into this European war, aside from the horrific suffering in Ukraine, experts warn that the long-term impact on energy and food prices will affect the world’s most vulnerable people the most.
South Asia is already seeing the economic impact of the Ukraine war turn into full-blown political crises in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Although Nepal’s debt burden is not as serious as Sri Lanka, the soaring import bill for food and fuel, stagnant exports and the collapse of tourism have depleted the foreign exchange reserves. The only saving grace is that remittance from Nepalis abroad showed a slight increase in February.
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Nepal Oil Corporation raised the price of petroleum products again this week to Rs160/l for petrol and Rs1,600 for an LPG cylinder. This will raise the price of food even more. Nepal Rastra Bank verbally instructed CEOs this week to cut LCs for imports of luxury items and real estate loans. The government is mulling a two-day weekend with 9AM start to weekdays, and cutbacks on the government’s fuel consumption.
Ukraine and Russia collectively supply more than a quarter of the world’s cereals including wheat. Nepal imports grain from India, which has a stock of nearly 100 million tons and has been sending aid to Afghanistan and other countries in the region. In March, its export of wheat rose to 8 million tons. This is expected to push up food prices in India, and by extension in Nepal.
“We have to quickly establish or identify alternative suppliers for the import of basic food items, maintain a minimum of buffer stocks and implement food or cash-based program that supports and protects the poor who may be affected by the price rise,” Bishow Parajuli, the WFP Representative in India, told Nepali Times.
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The knock-on effect of rising food and energy prices will be felt most acutely by the neediest (children, women and the elderly) in counties like Nepal. The Covid-19 lockdown had already deprived many Nepali families of income, and surveys had shown that their children were eating less.
Already, almost half of Nepal’s children are suffering from some form of malnutrition.
Despite dramatic strides in reducing stunting (less height for age) to 36% from 57% in the 1990s, progress has stalled. Childhood malnutrition predates Covid-19, but income loss due to the economic fallout of the pandemic and rising costs due to the Ukraine war has made the situation more precarious.
The WFP’s school lunch program in the remote western mountains of Nepal has helped meet some of the nutritional requirements of growing children. This program is now being handed over to the government to run in 71 districts.
Under-nutrition is a precursor for a host of ailments and a leading cause of child deaths, retarded mental and physical growth, and compromised immune systems. Child hunger in Nepal was a sign of political failure, misguided state priorities, lack of accountability and corruption. Covid, the Ukraine war and long-term impact of climate crisis all threaten to make it much worse.
With food and fuel prices set to rise even higher, the government needs to prepare for an emergency at a time when it is preoccupied with elections. Elected representatives could help deliver immediate relief with feeding programs for the most at risk. Once they take office, they must launch campaigns for agricultural self-sufficiency, climate-smart farming, and irrigation systems.
Says WFP’s Parajuli: “We have to create incentives and encourage farmers to grow their own food especially short-term crops such as the vegetables, and in the medium-term expansion of new season rice plantation, which will start soon.”
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