In Bangladesh, food is a basic right, as affirmed by the National Constitution of the country [article 15 (a)]. However, a large number of people are still subject to food insecurity in this land of 160 million people. According to the World Food Summit in 1996, food insecurity exists when a) there is not enough food available to meet the food demand; b) there is lack of access to available food at all times, to all people, at affordable prices and c) when available food fails to meet safety and nutrition demands of the given population.
In Bangladesh, high population growth, frequency of natural disasters, and low productivity are traditionally considered to be causes of food insecurity. However, data shows that these problems are no longer prominent in the food security debate. Fertility rate has declined from 7.0 to 2.3 between 1974-2013. Along with the resilience to flood and cyclone, innovative farming (e.g. saline tolerant seeds and floating gardening etc.) and green revolution since the 1980s has accelerated the overall food production (especially rice). In 1972, food production was 10 million MT for 70 million people (3 million MT shortage), while today it’s around 35 million MT for 160 million people (surplus of 11 million MT).
Bangladesh today has the third highest number of hungry population after China and India. According to a World Food Program (WFP) report (2012), 65.3 million people are food insecure in Bangladesh (45 percent of the population). This gap between production and distribution requires deeper understanding of the causes of food insecurity with specific focus on institutional weakness (both political and economic institutions).
Weak political instituitions (i.e. non functioning and turbulent democracy) generate weak economic institutions that leaves majority of the population vulnerable to poverty and hunger. The average number of hartals between 1991-2013 was 46 days per year. According to a UNDP report, Bangladesh loses 4.5% of GDP per year as a result of such hartals. Hartals and blockades increases transport cost of agricultural input and output. It not only increases the price of the food, but also reduces the gain of the farmers. According to a recent survey of WFP (2013), hartal resulted in 10-25% income fall for the low-income groups and farmers received 9-50% less price than normal days (specially those who produce perishable foods like fish and fruits).
In Bangladesh, where 80% of the people are engaged in informal sectors, political turbulence hits the majority of the people like fatal bullets. Falling wage and loss in production leads to application of evil means by people engaged in the production chain (e.g. use of unregistered pesticides and food syndication etc.). Out of 10,000 samples tested by the Institution of Public Health, 60% were found to be adulterated with poisonous chemicals. Absence of strong economic institutions and legal mechanisms (e.g. effective food distribution, crop insurance, cold chain and proper monitoring) threatens not only nutritional safety of the population (at present 36% people suffer from stunting), but also accessibility of food because of price hikes in a country that has 11 million MT of food in surplus.
In developing countries where institutional mechanisms are weak, food security is under threat from both local and international frontiers. In Bangladesh when farmers don’t get sufficient price for their produce, they often export to neighboring countries through black markets. The existence of parallel weak institutions of neighboring countries hampers food security and safety for our country. For instance most of the illegal chemical pesticides found in Bangladesh are imported from our neighbour India. Moreover, countries with lower checks and balances is a dreamland for MNCs to dump products that might not have gotten access if legal institutions were strong. For instance, the genetically modified Bt Brinjal (introduced by Monsanto-Mahyco corporation) is recognized as ‘poisonous brinjal’ by physicians because of its negative environmental and health consequences, but the government of Bangladesh allowed it in 2013 (while it is not allowed in India and other regions).
It is evident that national level food sufficiency does not ensure food security at individual levels. Moreover, food security is not the result of a single factor, but an amalgam of multiple factors and affects people differently with regards to their gender, race, geography and entitlements. Reforms at two points are essential to ensure sustainable food security, within institutions and through institutions.
To begin with, within institution reform requires establishment of functioning democracy and accountability. It requires both the intent of the political leaders and also pressure from civil society. Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in many socio-economic indicators with the help of NGOs (it is often called the NGO capital of the world) and this ‘magic bullet’ needs to be triggered at institutional reform this time to bring effective change in the food management system. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (1981) in his study showed how India escaped famine after independence with functional democracy that was absent during pre-independence period, when it experienced severe famine that killed 5 million people. Similarly in Bangladesh, civil society such as NGOs, media and other development actors can play an important role to ensure participation of mass population in the process of planning and execution in order to ensure accountability in governance systems.
Second, reform through institution is required. Nutritional aspect and food safety are threatened by excessive use of harmful pesticides and preservatives at different levels. It requires both positive and preventive check. Positive check is possible through institutional settings that can support: firstly, massive awareness campaign and farmers learning center on the consequence of chemicals on both the supply and demand sides of food distribution and secondly, establishing cold chain in order to ensure the freshness of food. Countries like USA, China, Brazil, Canada and Australia are much bigger than Bangladesh and still ensure food safety for their citizens without the use toxic preservatives. In Dhaka city, the problem of formalin can mostly be solved with use of only Taka 15 crores (USD 19 million) by establishing 100 cold storages in 50 markets. This small step can then be replicated in other big cities and then in the small cities.
Finally, there needs to be alteration in the nature of farming (e.g. crop rotation and use of organic fertilizer etc.) that will not only improve soil quality, but also ensure food safety. Preventive check requires proper monitoring and implementation of the law (i.e. Food Safety Act 2013). Government can also introduce licensing at food production and distribution levels in order to check use of chemicals by greedy farmers and salesmen. Moreover, local governments need to be more vigilant and should be supported with sufficient laboratory options to test food quality.
All these mechanisms implemented through effective institution will not only improve earning capacity, but also ensure the nutritional diet needed to rescue people from the nutritional poverty trap. Further, efficient distribution and security programs can also ensure food security at community and individual levels.