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Analysis: Six ways to take the bite out of Bangladesh food price hikes

DHAKA, 22 December 2011 (IRIN) - Food price increases have typically been followed by declining energy, vitamin and mineral intake and worsening malnutrition among Bangladesh's poorest. As food prices continue to climb, IRIN asked experts how to break this pattern.

Over the past year the price of rice in Bangladesh has increased by close to 30 percent, flour by 50 percent, lentils by 15 percent and chicken by 37 percent, according to a 2011 study by Oxfam.

The poor are hit hardest during these price shocks as they spend more of their income on food, said Kenneth Brown, a professor of nutrition at the University of California at Davis and adviser to NGO Helen Keller International (HKI).

“The usual coping strategy is to purchase more of the lower cost staple food and less of the complementary sources of vitamins and minerals… It is the quality of the diet that suffers with increasing food prices,” said Brown.

As a result, both chronic and acute malnutrition will worsen during rising food price increases, said Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus, a food biofortification project of the Washington DC-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

A 50 percent increase in food prices results in a decrease in energy intake of 5-15 percent and a drop in iron intake of 10-30 percent, based on a model Bouis and colleagues created using data on food prices and consumption from rural Bangladesh in the mid-1990s.

In a 2010 nutrition survey released on 13 December (not yet online) by HKI, the Dhaka-based BRAC University, and the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 45 percent of children under five were too short for their age group (stunted), a sign of vitamin and mineral deficiency.

Lack of micronutrients is a leading cause of preventable mental disability, according to health experts.

Six out of 10 households in Bangladesh - including some 10 million children - did not have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food in 2010, according to the food security and nutrition survey by HKI and its Bangladeshi partners.

Surveying 23,000 households (including 26,000 children) researchers found the rate of acute malnutrition doubled to 16 percent from the beginning to the end of the dry season (January-August).

Humanitarian agencies view any percentage above 15 as a nutrition emergency.

Below are six ways experts identified to help people in Bangladesh not simply survive - but also thrive - during food price increases.

Household food production

“In rural areas, homestead gardening and small animal production can help to make people less vulnerable to price shock,” said Damien Joud of Action Against Hunger (ACF).

HKI trains farmers, mostly female, on agricultural methods that help boost their yield and income while saving water and soil resources. It also provides improved seeds and animal breeds.

Household food production is part of the organization’s response to global food price volatility, as laid out in a position paper updated in June 2011.

Safety net programmes

Activities should safeguard and improve the food and nutrition security of the most vulnerable groups, said Michael Dunford, acting country director of the World Food Programme in Bangladesh.

“Empowering women and improving their access to income-earning opportunities is one of the most effective means of strengthening the resilience of households to shocks. Women are more likely to ensure that infants and young children receive the food they need.”

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In September 2008, the government launched a 100-day employment generation programme to help poor families affected by high food prices; it has become the largest safety net programme in Bangladesh.

Now known as the Employment Generation Programme for the Poorest, it targets rural areas during two lean seasons when families are awaiting harvests: March-May (40 days) and October-December (40 days).

There are more than 60 government-led safety net programmes nationwide, according to Akhter Ahmed, chief of party for IFPRI’s Bangladesh office. “However, most of these programmes have limited coverage, are uncoordinated and are not adequately funded.”

Wage increases

“If wages of the poorest section of the population increase with the food price hikes, the negative impact of the price hikes can be mitigated,” said Ahmed.

“The extent of such mitigation will depend on the time [it takes for the wages to increase] and the magnitude of the wage increase. It is encouraging that wages of the poor have been increasing in Bangladesh since the 2008 food price surge. The government should monitor changes in wages relative to food price changes,” he added.

The average monthly income rose from US$94 in 2005 to $150 in 2010. 

School feeding

Ahmed emphasized school feeding programmes for their ability to “ensure nutrition and education at the same time” and called for a targeted expansion in places like urban slums.

“To achieve maximum benefit for the cost, the programme should cover those areas where undernutrition is a serious problem, school enrolment and attendance rates are low and dropout rates are high… The programme should also cover secondary schools in target areas to improve education and nutrition of adolescent girls,” he added.

As of December 2011, 2.7 million primary school students nationwide receive food at school, according to Bablu Kumar Saha, director of the government’s national school feeding programme.

There are 16.5 million primary school-aged children in the country.


Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Open market sale in Dhaka
Subsidized food

An effective public food distribution system can make people less vulnerable to price shocks, said Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir, chairman of the local research group, Unnayan Onneshan.

Leaving the market to set food prices has in some cases led to predatory price-fixing, while the government’s long-running open market sales - when it releases its stocks directly to poor populations to prevent any sharp increases in market prices - is limited in its reach and efficacy, said Titumir as well as authors of the 2010 nutrition survey.

Other national subsidy programmes in Bangladesh have included rations for vulnerable groups and food-for-work.

Crop breeding

Biofortification, or selectively breeding crops high in nutrients, can buttress against shocks by creating more mineral and vitamin dense food staples, said HarvestPlus’s Bouis.

“The time is long overdue to bring agricultural interventions to bear to reduce micronutrient malnutrition,” he wrote in Food and Nutrition Bulletin.

A recent study of zinc-biofortified rice in Bangladesh (supported by HarvestPlus) concluded that while it has the potential to increase children’s intake of zinc, the rice examined did not increase children’s levels of total absorbed zinc.

HarvestPlus aims to release in 2013 top performing seeds of high-zinc rice currently under testing in Bangladesh.

pt/mw/cb

Theme (s): Economy, Food Security, Health & Nutrition,

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

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