Fixing Dhaka’s Food System

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John Taylor, Chief Technical Advisor, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Bangladesh, elaborates on the state of Dhaka’s food system and the necessity of a mechanism to address the constraints.
What is the current situation of Dhaka’s food system?

Dhaka is one of Asia’s biggest megacities, it is a city that is rapidly growing and because of this immense scale there are obviously really significant challenges in terms of bringing food to a population of more than 20 million people and counting every day. Food habits are also changing, this is a result of economic growth and changing eating habits, it creates demand for new kinds of food. Now you have food products coming from the countryside, but also that are being imported, and new kinds of food which are becoming popular and different ways of serving food, like the rise in popularity of fast food. With a rapidly changing and growing city, gaps in the food system appear and they cause a mismatch between what is needed and what is accessible for certain populations; for instance nutritious food is not always affordable and this a key issue facing the food system.

Hygiene and safety are also persistent issues, they result from a lack of enforcement and monitoring of the quality of the food products available in the city. The current infrastructures in place for providing food have deteriorated. Markets, for example, have become old, dirty, and dilapidated. The services one might expect from markets are not always there, the roads might not allow for food to reach the city quickly, and shortages of cold storage results in food that spoils quickly, creating food waste and the potential for food poisoning. There are many issues in the city’s food system that lead to our food not being as fresh, nutritious, and affordable as it could be. This is where FAO is working with the government and a range of other communities, companies, and organizations, to improve Dhaka’s food system.

What are the main challenges in the food system of Dhaka?

It goes beyond infrastructure and into issues regarding regulation. The bigger picture here is that the rapid and uncontrolled growth of the city has not been accompanied with adequate planning for the future food needs of its population. For example, as the city grows it becomes difficult for the farmers in the periphery to maintain their farms due to rising land prices, this means food has to come from further away, and leads to higher costs for our food. We have to ask ourselves, what is the future of food for this city? Better planning and an understanding of how the growth of the city affects the quality and accessibility of food is needed.

One of the starkest challenges that faces us is the fact that a big proportion of the population of the city cannot access nutritious food every day, let alone think about the future. The urban poor make up perhaps over twenty percent of the population, and they struggle to get enough food that would constitute a nutritious and sufficient diet. This challenge became acute during the pandemic when so many of the urban poor lost their jobs, and they were unable to afford what they were eating before. Coupled with that were the challenges of getting food into the city causing prices to rise which led to people economizing and sometimes resorting to going without food.

Food and nutrition insecurity is an important issue, but it does not just affect the urban poor. We also have the inverse case where more wealthy people of means suffer from obesity. Urban lifestyles are more sedentary, people do not exercise as much, and they may opt for convenient and fast food, but that’s not healthy. This is another form of malnutrition. What is so curious about this situation is sometimes you will see that members in the same family where one is malnourished, and another is suffering from obesity. So, another challenge relates to people’s choices of food and consumer behavior.

Infrastructure is of course also an issue, city markets need to evolve with the growth of the city. We need markets and services to be able to cater to the needs and expectations of 21st century customers. Your everyday person now expects safe, fresh, affordable food from markets that are clean, have proper lighting, ventilation, security, and safety. There is a lot of work that needs to be done there.

Other emerging issues, like food waste and food loss, need to be taken into consideration as well. It is estimated that 60-70% of all waste produced by this city is food waste. More than ten thousand tons of waste is produced by this city every day – just imagine how much of that is food. When food waste is not properly disposed of it gives off terrible odors, ends up blocking drains, attracting rodents, pests and insects, and this increases the risk of disease. We can do many interesting things with food waste instead of throwing it away, it can be returned to the earth to enrich soils, converted to biogas or animal feed, and help create jobs and support livelihoods. So, there are opportunities where people see waste and we are trying to help the city government and other stakeholders to see them and make the most of them.

How does food inequality affect the urban poor population of the country? How did this demographic cope during the first three months of COVID-19 lockdown?

Every one of us needs nutritious food to thrive, but the poor live very close to a threshold that determines how much nutritious food we eat to satisfy our daily needs to live a healthy life. If there are shocks to the food economy where certain prices go up and they are unable to have enough money to consume that nutritional minimum, they are going to go into a deficit. Which means they are not going to be able to obtain enough food and will absorb that loss in their bodies. This becomes a problem not just for them, but also it is a huge health issue and can be passed down to their children. It can affect their productivity.

Social economic inequality means that a lot of the urban poor are not able to eat what they need to in order. This needs to be addressed at a political and administrative level. We need to find ways to make food available to all. There are opportunities for the government to devise policies in terms of food distribution. The government did really well in terms of making staples and food available to the poor, but after the lockdown many of the poor continue to live on that poverty line or on that nutritional deficient line.

The urban poor coped by eating less. Many people, instead of having a balanced diet, filled themselves up with lentils and rice. They had to share their meals amongst their family and neighbors, this resulted in them eating less and less food. This lowers their immunities and can cause serious health problems. This is an issue that doesn’t get enough attention but deserves it, because we underestimate how much of the population really lives close to that threshold of hunger and despair. During critical phases of the pandemic, the poor faced a significant humanitarian crisis, which was also a public health problem, and an economic problem in terms of the losses in the economy and productivity too.

What will the Dhaka Food System project do? How will it address the issue of food insecurity?

We are trying to do several things. A food system approach is a holistic way of looking at how we get our food every day. It is not simply an issue of food supply, it is an issue of agriculture policy, availability of food in rural areas outside of this city. It’s not a question of what is available in the supermarket, it actually is looking at the system that gets the food from farm to fork. It looks at issues such as governance, meaning the relationship between people and their government, all the rules and regulations that govern how food is grown, processed, distributed, and accessed. A food system approach addresses the plans and regulations in place and if these things are being monitored.

The food system is a complicated way of seeing our access to food: it’s not just thinking about it simplistically like the Ministry of Agriculture takes care of growing food and the Ministry of Food is there to distribute in humanitarian emergencies. Rather it looks at how all of those different government agencies and other stakeholders like the private sector, or small holder farmers, or market vendors – all the people that are involved in how we access food every day and how they might interact with one another. Food system allows us to think of ways to improve accessibility of food.

We are looking for a better understanding of food systems. We are looking into interactive maps that are publicly available so people can see where their markets are and where their food is coming from, what are the passageways into the city, the entire geography of how food is sourced. We are trying to understand consumer behavior patterns and understand why people eat what they eat, what are their preferences, what influences these preferences, and we are also trying to study and understand different value chains and how they work and where the inefficiencies are.

Another thing that we are working on is gathering information to have a better understanding of the food system. Innovative interventions– which do not have to be big – are important. We understand the importance of improving the quality of the markets, so we are going to be piloting some improvements in fresh markets.

We are also going to design training materials so we can help market associations to function better and serve their customers better. We are also looking to train vendors so that they can provide a healthy, clean, and safe environment for customers. We are looking into interventions around food waste and how it should be seen as a resource. There are many different areas in the food system.

We are also looking into food safety and increasing access to information regarding food safety and ways in which people can get awareness about their food and creating systems that encourage the traceability or the ability to understand where your food comes from and if it’s safe or not. These are the second areas of strategic intervention that will help to bring about more widespread change within the food system.

Most importantly we need to bring in stakeholders like city governments, the private sector, street vendors, market associations to participate in discussions and decision making about the food system. Is there a way for those different stakeholders to engage in decision making or prioritizing or coming up with solutions for issues within the food system? Is there a way for governments to work together? Is there a coordination mechanism in place for different government agencies to actually discuss and take decisions together? Food is just not in the realm of health, transportation, infrastructure or revenue collection – it is all of these things and there needs to be a mechanism or a platform for cooperation and coordination which we hope will lead to better policies being developed and implemented.

We want to help influence policy making by making it much more participatory and helping all the different stakeholders to have access to each other and discuss things and take the right action for this city. These are the three main areas that the Dhaka Food System is working towards.

Poor communities usually have little or no opportunity to articulate the urgency of their situation to local governments. Will the project include them in planning and policy decisions that can benefit their lives and wellbeing?

The urban poor are an example of a group that really suffers if their access to food is inhibited in some way, which is what happened during the Covid-19 lockdown, but their voices struggle to be heard at the levels that matter. FAO is creating opportunities for more marginal groups, those that really need better and more sustainable access to food, to access the decision-makers of the city’s food system. Obviously you have stakeholders with formal roles such as agro-processors, supermarkets, and government agencies, but there also many others whose food needs have to be considered and taken into account.

They are now playing a more active role in newly founded City Food Councils, which bring together stakeholders so that they are able to discuss and advocate for different policies or prioritizing different issues where attention needs to be drawn. Poor communities will have to advocate on behalf of themselves, but FAO can help provide them with information, help them how to articulate their needs, and so when they are at the table they can feel confident to be a part of creating solutions.

Over the past year we have conducted a series of studies together with urban poor communities to bring together a greater understanding about food and nutrition insecurity in Dhaka’s low-income settlements. We have learned some interesting things, for example, many of the urban poor spend up to 50% of their income on food which is an extremely high figure. But they are proposing ideas on how to create better access to food, they’re asking for training on urban gardening, and on how to start small food businesses, and on how to cook and select nutrition foods. While these initiatives are not going to solve food insecurity, they demonstrate that the poor seek practical solutions that give them more options and more ways of getting the nutritious food they need.

In broad strokes, what is the overall goal of Modelling, Planning and Improving Dhaka’s Food Systems project?

While we aspire to improve the whole of the city’s food system, we realize that this takes time and the concerted action of many different groups. Our goal is really more humble: we need to prioritize food in the agenda of the city. For this people need more information about food, more awareness about issues that affect their access to food, and more innovation and action to improve different areas within the food system. When good ideas can be scaled up they improve access for more and more people.

When new regulations are enforced it makes food safer, and when more open debate can occur more stakeholders can participate in making sure their food needs and priorities are being addressed and heard. The goal would be for a more informed, empowered, organized city, so that one day the city can ensure sustainable access to food for all. I realize this will take time, but we have to start and a broad-based engagement by people is needed to achieve that vision.

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