Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

SOUTH ASIA-FOOD: Sub-Saharan Malnutrition Worries Planners

Kunda Dixit

NEW DELHI, Jun 14 1996 (IPS) - Its the time of year in the South Asian sub-continent when farmers look nervously at the sky for signs of the approaching monsoon.

Their health, the health of their families and even the health of the national economies of South Asian countries depends in large measure on these annual rains. If they are inadequate or fail, it can mean disaster.

South Asia, except Sri Lanka, has had five years of healthy monsoons, and the region’s granaries are bursting.

In fact, the region has proved Malthusian soothsayers predicting mass starvation wrong. Green Revolution seeds boosted harvests in the 1970’s and continued to push grain production higher.

Except for Sri Lanka, grain production in South Asia exceeded population growth throughout the 1980s. While the average population growth for the region was 2.1 percent, food production grew at 4.3 percent per year.

India has amassed huge grain surpluses and even exported rice this year to deficit areas of south-east Asia and capitalised on high world prices.

However, agronomists warn that in the 1990s, South Asia is slipping as grain output declines. India’s annual growth of 4.3 percent has come down to 1.6 in the 1993-94 period. Bangladesh’s annual food production growth declined from 2.8 percent in the 1980s to 0.6 in the past two years.

“If these trends continue, the gains made in the 1980s will be eroded very soon,” says Bangladeshi agronomist Mahabub Hossain, who works at the Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute.

Hossain says the two countries most at risk are Nepal and Bangladesh where population pressure is most serious, the expansion of arable land is limited and the countries cannot afford to import food in case of shortfalls.

Pakistan has the highest population growth rate in the region, but Hossain says it has more possibilities of expanding arable land. And in India, there are still enormous possibilities to expand irrigation so that crops are not as dependent on the vagaries of the monsoons.

New hybrid rice seeds that would make the Second Green Revolution possible are still at least five years away, till then South Asians must find other ways to feed their one billion people.

The irony for many health workers and planners is that at a time when South Asian granaries are full, the level of malnutrition in South Asia is unnaturally high.

They offer this as proof that undernourishment is not really a problem of scarcity, but of distribution.

“South Asia may be doing well in food production, but it is a very bad situation as far as the vulnerable groups are concerned,” the head for the Asia-Pacific region of the the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) told IPS in an interview in Bangkok

In its ‘Progress of Nations’ report released last week, UNICEF compares malnutrition levels in South Asia and Africa. Not only is the sheer numbers of undernourished three times higher in Asia, but the percentage of children who are underweight in South Asia is 51 percent, compared to 31 percent for sub-Saharan Africa.

“The countries of the South Asian region must now face up to the fact that they have the worst nutritional levels in the world, and that the roots of malnutrition run deep in social soils,” says the UNICEF report.

It adds that the main social factor affecting the high malnutrition levels is the inequality between men and women which has a direct link to low-birth weight, high maternal mortality, breast feeding, food and disease.

Says the report: “The women of sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly poor women, have greater opportunities and freedoms than the women of South Asia.”

These are differences not about female literacy rates or age of girls at marriage in the two regions, but how much independence and decision-making women in the two regions are granted. And it seems South Asian women are way behind.

UNICEF says 60 percent of the women in sub-Saharan Africa are involved in some kind of economic activity outside the home while

only a quarter of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi women do so.

But government planners tend to look at the macro-economic figures and they are worrying about grain harvests declining below population growth rates.

And the prospects of non-staple grains like pulses (which is the most important source of proteins in vegetarian diets) is declining. India’s annual pulse harvests have stagnated for the past 20 years, and have become a luxury only the rich can afford.

Says Obaidullah Khan: “FAO projects that through 2010 food production will grow but at a much slower pace. The food security situation is going to be much more fragile.”

Asia-Pacific non-governmental organisations which met in Bangkok recently to formulate policy for the upcoming Food Summit in Rome in November say market liberalisation and the pressure on farmers to go for export cash crops is hurting food production.

Says Tony Quizon of the group of 100 Asia-Pacific NGOs: “It is time to reintegrate agricultural production into the local ecology. It is time to abandon such techno-fixes as the Green Revolution. It is time to bring farming once again into control of local communities.”

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