Achieving zero hunger in NepalActions such as revitalising local food systems and transforming nutrition behaviour must be interconnected.
A time could come in the future when you can take a food capsule a day to keep hunger away. But until such an invention arises, we have to keep cultivating and harvesting to eat—and eat healthy too. This means our farms have to remain productive, our farmers engaged and interested in farming, and our crops diverse and plentiful. But achieving that warrants a coordinated, innovative and institutional approach to ensure that no one is left behind when it comes to eating healthy food.
Nepal is one of the 193 United Nations member states that have committed to achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. SDG 2 concerns ending hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition, and making agriculture sustainable. With 10 years to achieve these targets, Nepal’s National Planning Commission and several international institutions joined hands to discuss this agenda in December 2019. The consensus during this meeting was that achieving zero hunger and malnutrition requires interventions in issues beyond agriculture and health. Also, several underlying causes and drivers such as poverty, migration, market and trade, rural-urban development, environmental conservation, energy, resource management, and climate change have to be tackled simultaneously.
Poverty and underdeveloped food systems pose enormous challenges to ensuring food and nutrition security. The increasing migration of labour (approximately 1,500–1,600 people every day) to foreign countries for gainful employment leaves our agricultural lands either fallow or transformed for non-farm use. Agricultural production naturally decreases given this outflow of labour, and so does the sector’s contribution to the national gross domestic product. In a country where the majority of the population is rural and dependent on agriculture for livelihoods, this is alarming.
Sustainable agriculture must involve farmers as entrepreneurs. However, the idea of making agriculture economically viable is usually bound to the notion of cultivating more cash crops rather than diversified crops, commodities, and cuisines. The result is deteriorated local food systems and dietary diversity, along with the concomitant increase in malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency. About 8 percent of Nepal’s population remains undernourished. It is estimated that only 36 percent of children (6–23 months) receive the minimum acceptable diet, and 18 percent of women are undernourished while 41 percent are anaemic.
A balanced, healthy diet must be available throughout the year. However, in remote villages, especially in the high mountains of Nepal, the availability of year-round nutritious food is impacted by the seasonality of agriculture, food shortages, and inefficient food imports owing to geophysical isolation. In urban areas, the consumption of year-round nutritious food is challenged by unhealthy dietary habits involving a higher intake of processed and energy-dense fast foods, leading to increasing cases of obesity and diabetes.
The government believes that improving nutritional intake for all citizens is possible if the right policies and legislation, institutional arrangements, partnerships, and investments are in place. This is indeed possible, but the solutions have to be transformative, integrated, and innovative. The country’s Multi-Sector Nutrition Plan (MSNP-II) (2018–2022) is one such well-devised, integrated plan. It carefully analyses multidisciplinary challenges impacting food and nutrition security in Nepal; frames the objective of zero hunger and malnutrition within global development imperatives; and outlines plans for improved nutrition-sensitive education, health and population management, and agriculture. Such plans require a touch of programmatic balance and transformative leadership on the part of both citizens and the state.
For transformative leadership, the key is having an interdisciplinary institution at all levels. The federal governance structure provides an excellent vertical (local, provincial and federal) and horizontal (between different ministries and departments) institutional connect to implement MSNP-II effectively. Advisory institutions at the federal level can set up overarching legal frameworks and policies, harmonising the plan’s targets with the SDGs. Provinces can have technical and steering institutions to prepare province-specific programmatic interventions and resource allocation plans. Local-level governments can coordinate and communicate responsive extension services. For citizens, the federal system provides an opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to food, nutrition, and health by vocalising responsible and educated consumer demand directly to the local-level government.
To achieve the food and nutrition goal in 10 years, four interconnected actions, revitalising local food systems, transforming nutrition behaviour, strengthening extension and delivery services, and enhancing social learning must be reinforced. But nutrition challenges are not uniform; they vary with geography, agro-ecological potential, education, wealth, and the urban-rural setup.
Government and external development partners thus have to prudently pitch sectoral programmes on agriculture, livestock, food, forest, environment, education, health, sanitation, water, energy, rural development, enterprise, finance, and technology, as per the demand from the ground. An information technology-based robust monitoring, evaluation, learning, and decision-support system would be a transformative innovation that could help connect citizens’ differential demands for food and nutrition security with the state’s targeted interventions. It would help the state to channelise resources and streamline programmatic interventions and investments.
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