What onions and garlic tell us about our food systemNumerous examples seen in the recent past serve as an alarming reminder of just how food insecure we are.
If the food system of a country—as a measure of how vulnerable it is to external shocks—is anything to go by, Nepal provides a chilling example. For an agrarian country, with two-thirds of its population engaged in farming, Nepal’s food system should have been based on local production and our domestic market. Unfortunately, degraded land, low productivity, lack of workforce and rising weather uncertainties have made agriculture, which is largely subsistence in nature, less rewarding. Consequently, the food system is being increasingly shaped by imports from across the globe. Nepal’s reliance on foreign markets for food has been steadily rising and stands at about 17 percent of our import bill. There is nothing wrong with relying on the globalised food system to maintain one’s food security. But the globalised food system, a norm for industrialised or middle-income countries, won’t be sustainable and can’t be justified for a remittance-based, poor economy. Numerous examples seen in the recent past serve as an alarming reminder of just how our food security hinges upon an incredibly vulnerable food system.
Garlic prices in the retail market doubled in just a week after the northern border, the source of a bulk of garlic imports, was closed as a precaution to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. As a result, people stopped buying the cooking staple due to the price hikes. Earlier in October, onion prices increased four-fold when India banned its export, following the loss of onion crops due to continued rain until late September, a situation linked to climate change. Previously, when India banned the export of rice in 2008 due to a global price rise, it hit our markets severely. The then Nepali prime minister, when visiting India in October of that year, had to request the Indian government to lift the ban on exports.
If a country endowed with land and ecological diversity, which allows growing multiple crops across its landscape, has to import food worth hundreds of billions of rupees a year, something is staggeringly wrong with its economic policies. Garlic, for example, not only grows across Nepal, from the lowland of Tarai to the Trans-Himalayan dry land of Mustang, it’s also an essential ingredient of Nepali cuisine. One could easily picture garlic growing in the backyard of every family with a small kitchen garden, and yet a large amount is imported.
Market-driven food systems like the one we have unwittingly slipped into, always favour people in proportion to their purchasing power. Food goes to those who can pay the price, and in turn, it hurts the poorest and most marginalised sections of the society. Urban-dwellers who rely completely on the market for food are forced to make the choice between what to eat and what to avoid based on the cost. Onions disappeared from many kitchens when the price skyrocketed, but it was still available in the market for those who could pay for it. The same is true with garlic.
There were ample amounts of onions being smuggled and sold at exorbitant prices. People with a vested interest, and often backed by power centres on both sides of the border, benefited from the illegal trade.
There are those who suggest foregoing onions and garlic till prices lower; they assert that this is a trivial matter and such uproar is unjustified. It is entirely possible that they are correct; if it is only for a few months and for a particular item, people could learn to compromise. However, the question isn’t if we can do without them, the question is to what extent do we forgo commodities when there is a problem in imports. Onions and garlic represent the larger, fundamental problems in our food system. Given the existing situation, the list could easily expand to an unprecedented scale, which defies the very notion of food as a human right as stipulated in our Constitution.
Agriculture is full of risks—heavy rains, long droughts, hailstorms, floods or diseases and insects damage crops. And then, if one is lucky to have a good harvest, that doesn’t always guarantee a good return. Farmers in Dhankuta lost millions of rupees in 2017 when they failed to export vegetables after parts of the road were damaged by landslides. The cardamom price collapse hit farmers who aspired to graduate from subsistence farming. Sugarcane farmers have been waiting to receive the money for their crops sold years ago. Cabbage, a few years ago, had to be buried in the farms when prices dropped sharply. These deterrents to farming give way to higher imports. But a glaring flaw with a globalised market-based food system is that it makes society less resilient to respond to problems of agriculture. Even worse, it will hinder society from effectively addressing environmental problems.
We don’t know the full implications of climate impacts yet and how it’ll impact Nepal’s agriculture, what we know for sure is that it’s affected the water sector, which is at the core of food production and is depleting rapidly across the country. Planners remain complacent about restoring water sources since we can import food from elsewhere, which, in the long run, only makes us weaker in addressing the problem effectively. Nor will it bother us consumers as much as it should as long as we can buy the food of our choice any time of the year.
Sadly, we’re only reminded of our vulnerability when there is a problem with our imports. Whether it is due to a global price rise or heavy rains or disease outbreaks, when there’s a problem somewhere, our food system suffers. The state hasn’t been able to address even our regular problems such as stabilising food prices during difficult times, much less the unexpected jolts.
In the face of climate change, we need to prepare ourselves for many unexpected shocks, including the recent outbreak of locusts in Africa and parts of Pakistan that destroyed crops over hundreds of thousands of hectares of farms raising global concerns. Tens of millions of people in the region are already facing food shortages due to rains, insecurity, and now the locust infestation. The outbreak is already making food security in those areas even worse. The bad news is that the insects could increase 500-fold by June, which might easily impact us.
Hence, isn’t it time to truly consider why we haven’t been able to recognise the vulnerability of our import-based food system? Time is running out for us to begin efforts on re-localising our food system.
What do you think?
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