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AFGHANISTAN: Food still unaffordable for millions

KABUL, 12 March 2009 (IRIN) - Wheat flour, rice and cooking oil prices have dropped by over 15 percent in the past three months but adequate food is still unaffordable for millions of Afghans living on less than US$1 a day, according to officials.

The average price of a 50kg bag of wheat flour was 1,100 Afghanis (about US$21) on 10 March in Kabul, down from $36 in December 2008. A 24.5kg sack of rice has gone down to $25 from $37, and the cost of a 16kg canister of ghee is now $20 instead of $31.

“Prices have fallen considerably compared to six months ago,” Abdul Matin, a shopkeeper in Kabul’s main food market, told IRIN, citing food aid deliveries by aid agencies and the government, and imports from abroad as the main reasons for the fall in prices.

Food prices, particularly for wheat flour, rose by up to 150 percent in 2008 because of drought, which left a domestic cereal production shortfall of about 35 percent. Export restrictions by Pakistan and other wheat exporting countries exacerbated the problem.

Throughout 2008 spiralling food prices proved disastrous for millions of Afghans who were pushed into high-risk food insecurity.

In a bid to provide a temporary safety net for about five million most vulnerable Afghans, UN agencies and the government launched a joint emergency appeal in April 2008 for over $404 million to procure and distribute 230,000 tonnes of food aid and provide other life-saving assistance.

About 70 percent of the requested funds had been received from donors by February and food aid had reached some of the targeted population, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) said [seen an IRIN report on winter wheat aid].

Government action

The government says it responded promptly to the price hikes in early 2008 by launching two joint emergency appeals, earmarked $100 million to procure wheat from regional markets, and waived taxes on food imports.

“Food items are adequately available in the country thanks to a number of measures taken by the government and also owing to donations from countries like India, China and Russia,” Saddudin Safi, head of MAIL’s food security department, told IRIN.

India has pledged 250,000 tonnes of wheat aid and Russia has reported the delivery of 18,000 tonnes of wheat flour to the country.

“We hope the importation of wheat from India will further decrease prices,” said Safi, adding that negotiations were still under way on how to get the wheat through Pakistan.

The Indian government has reportedly decided to lift its ban on wheat exports in May 2009, a move expected to exert further downward pressure on food prices.

Much will also depend on Afghanistan’s domestic agricultural production in 2009. After an impressive harvest in 2007, there was a shortfall of over two million tonnes of cereals in 2008 largely because of drought, according to MAIL.

No respite for the poorest

About 42 percent of the country’s estimated 27 million people live on less than $1 a day, according to the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

A marginal reduction in food prices is good news for many but it will not ensure access to adequate food for about eight million Afghans, say experts.

Households who live just above the poverty line could benefit most from falling food prices. Spending less on food will also help middle class families to save money for other essential needs such as healthcare and the education of their children.

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Theme (s): Early Warning, Economy, Food Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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