A look into the underlying factors contributing to chronic food insecurity in Bangladesh, and the recommended actions to structurally strengthen food security in the long term.
Bangladesh has achieved self-sufficiency in fish, meat, rice and vegetable production due to progressive policies and timely decision-making. However, Bangladesh still ranks 80th out of 113 countries according to the Global Food Security Index 2022. This is because while we have made progress in food availability, we are still lagging behind in affordability, quality and safety, and sustainability and adaptation.
In order to understand why self-sufficiency is not akin to security, it is important to identify the factors that lead to chronic hunger. Continuous research efforts have identified the major contributing factors in Bangladesh to be food availability, dietary diversity, food utilisation, food accessibility, and the financial state of the citizens. Publications by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), titled IPC Analysis Report on the Chronic Food Insecurity Situation, and the World Food Program’s (WFP) mVAM Food Security Monitoring survey shed insights into how these factors are impeding our progress toward food security.
Data for the IPC report was collected between 2009 and 2019 and the conclusions were drawn based on a convergence of evidence. The IPC report analyses chronic food insecurity (CFI), which is defined as “A manifestation of inadequate food and nutrient consumption over longer periods of time, mainly due to structural causes.” The analysis units used for determining CFI are as follows: food availability, food access, food utilisation, livelihood strategies, human capital, physical capital, financial capital, natural capital, social capital, policy/institutional processes, recurrent risks, and unusual crises. There are four classification levels to indicate chronic food insecurity:
Level 1 (No/Minimal Chronic Food Insecurity): In a common year, households are continuously able to access and consume a diet of acceptable quantity and quality for an active and healthy life. Household livelihoods are sustainable and resilient to shocks. Households are not likely to have stunted children
Level 2 (Mild Chronic Food Insecurity): In a common year, households are able to access a diet of adequate quantity but do not always consume a diet of adequate quality. Household livelihoods are borderline sustainable, and resilience to shocks is limited. Households are not likely to have stunted children.
Level 3 (Moderate Chronic Food Insecurity) In a common year, households have ongoing mild deficits in food quantity and/or seasonal food quantity deficits for 2 to 4 months of the year, and consistently do not consume a diet of adequate quality. Household livelihoods are marginally sustainable, and their resilience to shocks is very limited. Households are likely to have moderately stunted children.
Level 4 (Severe Chronic Food Insecurity): In a common year, households have seasonal deficits in the quantity of food for more than 4 months of the year and consistently do not consume a diet of adequate quality. Household livelihoods are very marginal and are not resilient. Households are likely to have severely stunted children.
Food or calorie availability in Bangladesh is not a major factor limiting people’s food security as Bangladesh is self-sufficient. However, there is not enough food diversity, and food utilisation is inadequate
QUALITY, QUANTITY, AND NUTRITIONAL STATUS
Food or calorie availability in Bangladesh is not a major factor limiting people’s food security as Bangladesh is self-sufficient. However, there is not enough food diversity, and food utilisation is inadequate. Consumption of nutritious foods such as fruits, leafy and yellow/orange vegetables, and animal-source foods is much lower than dietary recommendations. This has largely remained unchanged between 2010 and 2016. Around one in five households consistently consumes a diet of insufficient quality throughout the year. Around 40% of households are able to consume a diet of adequate quality but not consistently throughout the year. Around 6% of households experience moderate deficits in the quantity of food consumed. An additional 15% experience mild food consumption deficit.
The shortcomings of nutrition are evident in the national child stunting rate of 28%. Around 27% of children consume a minimum acceptable diet, but around 2 out of 3 children’s dietary diversification is inadequate. While there could be factors unrelated to food, such as hygiene conditions, particularly in poorer households, a major contributor to stunted growth is the persistent inability to meet minimum macro and micronutrient requirements needed from intra-uterine life till 5 years of age. It could also be due to a high recurrence of acute malnutrition, or a combination of both.
UNDERLYING FACTORS DRIVING CFI
According to the report, the population in IPC CFI Levels 3 and 4 are at risk of being chronically food insecure. At least 20% of households in these two Levels depended on unskilled day labour, marginal farming or fishing which often generate inadequate and unpredictable incomes. These professions are linked to agricultural activities and therefore follow a seasonal pattern.
It is likely that people with lower levels of human capital (education), physical capital (household) and financial capital risk being at Levels 3 or 4 of the IPC CFI. Capitals are an important contributor to achieving food security and the lack of one or more forms of capital aggravates the situation in others. The IPC report indicates that around 50% of Levels 3 and 4 population are illiterate, have a household dependency ratio of 70% (compared to the national average of 49%) and the early childhood education attendance rate is less than 10%. These serve as barriers to economic development as it makes acquiring technical skills and opportunities difficult and complicated. Limitations of physical capital are highly evident among this population. Around 30% of these households are landless or have small plots only, and close to 70% live in non-brick-built houses. In terms of constraints in financial capital, less than 20% of women aged 18 and above are earning in Levels 3 and 4, and the households engaged in farming have limited access to loan facilities, cooperative societies and financial institutions.
Natural disaster-prone areas are also likely to have a higher frequency of chronically food-insecure households. These are areas prone to shocks such as cyclones, flash floods, monsoon floods, riverbank erosion and dry spells. Over the past 10 years, 41 districts were struck by a natural disaster at least four times, and the frequency and intensity of these climatic events are increasing due to the effects of global warming and climate change. As a result, livelihood, food production, and food security in these districts are being negatively impacted.
NEAR REAL-TIME OBSERVATIONS ON FOOD SECURITY
The WFP conducts the Mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAR) project to get near real-time analytics on food security and essential needs analysis across the country. Around 1,200 participants are surveyed on a regular basis, which allows the WFP to identify recent events that impact food security.
According to the mVAR, almost two in ten households, are currently food insecure, and more than five in ten households apply livelihood-based coping strategies to ensure food on their plates. Common coping strategies are borrowing money, selling productive assets, or going into debt to buy food. Around 39% purchased food on credit, 38% had debts, and 25% spent their savings. The situation is exacerbated by continued price hikes, loss of income, fewer opportunities for employment, and natural disasters, meaning these coping strategies are often non-reversible. Strategies such as selling productive assets are particularly alarming, as it risks further sacrifices in the long run.
Household expenditures are increasing while incomes are decreasing. Around 65% of food-insecure households reported an income decrease and 82% reported increased expenditures. The WFP stated that the current economic state, loss of employment, fewer daily labour opportunities, disruption in market functionality, frequent disaster hits, high inflation, lack of assistance and social safety net coverage, illness, and health expenditure increase, all amidst a global food crisis, as the major contributing factors of loss of income.
The data further suggests that female-headed households and households with disabilities are more prone to food insecurity. Females earn 35% less than males and have less access to job opportunities. People with disability have fewer opportunities to earn a living. Additionally, households with disabled people have higher medical expenses and additional loss of income as earning members are likely to stay at home as caregivers. Among high-income groups, only 1% reported being vulnerable to rising prices and loss of income.
With regard to food intake, consumption of iron-rich food intake is alarmingly low, especially for low-income group households. Around 15% only have iron-rich food in their regular diet, 78% have it sometimes, and 8% consume little to no in a week. The low consumption can be attributed to low purchasing power, loss of income, lean season impact on employment, and high prices.
ACCORDING TO THE MVAR, ALMOST TWO IN TEN HOUSEHOLDS, ARE CURRENTLY FOOD INSECURE, AND MORE THAN FIVE IN TEN HOUSEHOLDS APPLY LIVELIHOOD-BASED COPING STRATEGIES TO ENSURE FOOD ON THEIR PLATES.
Both the WFP and ICP have highlighted structural deficiencies that need to be addressed in order to ensure food security. The problems identified so far are a high dependency ratio, low education levels, poor housing conditions, poor access to basic services, poor childcare practices, low female literacy rate, limited access to improved sources of toilet facilities, high use of solid cooking fuel, poor access to roads, long distance to markets and physical access to food. The WFP recommend urgent action to implement safety net programs to improve the quality and quantity of food consumed by households in IPC CFI Level 4. Levels 3 and 4 also require Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) interventions. Additionally, there should be programs formulated by giving attention to aspects related to physical capital, financial capital, human capital and diversification of livelihood.
The interventions should address both short-term and long-term food security issues. The recommended course of action is to integrate sustainable economic empowerment programs with local agricultural production processes for the most chronically food-insecure households. While these households are likely to be IPC Levels 3 and 4, lower risk levels such as Levels 2 and 1 also need their issues addressed, particularly those underlying factors to improve the quality of food consumption.
In terms of long-term solutions, the most chronically food-insecure households should be supported with responses focusing on disaster risk reduction, and increasing resilience to recurrent shocks. In all cases, when planning interventions or measures for risk reduction, the climate change adaptation agenda should be at the forefront.