WFP survey: 24pc people in the country food insecure  

Sexagenarian Rahima Khatun purchases TCB goods in Dhaka’s Ashkona area on 3 April 2022.Prothom Alo

One in four people in the country are food insecure, and 46 per cent of the poor population is in this dire situation according to the data revealed in a survey report released this month by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). 

The report, titled 'Bangladesh Food Security Monitoring Report: May-August,' was released on 3 October. According to the report, the increase in natural calamities in the country and the resulting rise in human losses are among the reasons for the worsening food situation. 

The report highlights that several parts of the country experienced low rainfall and persistent heatwaves during the summer. The intensity of the heatwave was particularly high in the Rajshahi division. In August, Chattogram and Sylhet witnessed sudden flood. In addition to this, cyclones and landslides have also occurred. Last year, similar weather conditions exacerbated the food security situation. 

Earlier, the WFP published another report titled 'Bangladesh Market Monitor: May-July' in September. In that report, the agency noted that food prices in Bangladesh are rising due to a decline in remittance inflow and a crisis in foreign exchange reserves.  

Simultaneously, the cost of production of food products like rice and vegetables has increased due to the rise in fertilizer, electricity, and fuel prices, as stated in the report. In August last year, the country's foreign exchange reserves fell by 25 per cent, and the value of the taka saw a record drop, the report mentioned. 

Additionally, the latest Food and Expenditure Survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), published in April 2022, stated that the poverty rate in the country is 18.7 per cent. The survey revealed that the poverty rate has decreased despite the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine. 

This correspondent spoke to Minara Begum, a resident of Mirpur's East Kazipara, to understand the condition of low-income families in the country. She works as a domestic help in a few households. Two of the other three family members work as daily wage workers. In total, the family's income is Tk 25,000 to 30,000 per month. Mentioning that it costs Tk 700 to Tk 800 to provide a three-course meal to a family, she said the price of rice has decreased slightly, but the cost of vegetables and eggs has increased." 

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Amidst the current situation, World Food Day is being celebrated worldwide, including in Bangladesh, on Monday. This year's theme for the day is 'Water is life, water is food. No one can be left behind.' 

When asked about the report from the World Food Programme (WFP), the Secretary of the Ministry of Food, Ismail Hossain, informed Prothom Alo that there are more than 1.5 million tons of rice and 150,000 tons of wheat in the government warehouse.

According to him, the government is actively distributing rice and wheat through the most comprehensive social safety net since independence. In addition to the regular programmes of the Directorate General of Food, the government is making arrangements for the sale of various food products, including rice and wheat, at affordable prices for 10 million poor people through the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB). Consequently, the information provided by the World Food Program indicating that 24 per cent of people are food insecure does not seem to be accurate. 

Current state and cause of food insecurity  

According to the WFP report, 24 per cent of the country's population and 46 per cent of impoverished households face food insecurity. However, only 9 per cent of middle-income families and 3 per cent of high-income families are affected by this issue. 

Meanwhile, a 2023 report on global food security and nutrition by five United Nations agencies revealed that over 52.5 million people in the country are experiencing varying levels of food insecurity, ranging from moderate to severe. Among them, 18.7 million people are classified as being in a state of severe food insecurity. 

In a WFP survey, 71 per cent of households identified rising food prices as their primary concern. Seven out of ten households are attempting to cope by lowering their standard of living. A significant portion of them is consuming less food than before, resorting to borrowing and selling productive assets, and purchasing food on credit. 

As for the causes of food insecurity, the organisation stated in the report that it is primarily attributed to natural disasters, the escalating prices of daily necessities, and the perpetuation of a chronic poverty situation, worsening the overall scenario. 

Borrowing grows

The WFP report highlights a concerning trend of increasing numbers of people resorting to debt to purchase food. This is especially prevalent among low-income individuals.

In May of this year, 32 per cent of people were observed buying food on credit, a figure that surged to 46 per cent by August. Particularly in Sylhet, 53 percent, and in Chittagong, 58 percent of people are inclined to buy food on credit.

These individuals have received minimal assistance from both the government and the private sector, with only 20 per cent receiving aid in August. 

The report also underscores that 3 out of every 10 families are unable to access sufficient food. In disaster-prone areas, this rate escalates to half of the population. Remarkably, 74 per cent of people across the country are purchasing less and cheaper food, leading to an overall decline in nutrient intake. 

When questioned, Sajjad Zahir, the Executive Director of the Economic Research Group (ERG), a private research organization, emphasised to Prothom Alo that the escalation in the number of people in need within the country is evident.

Therefore, acknowledging that a segment of the population is facing food insecurity is an essential first step. Merely stating that there is an abundance of food stock and good production in the country does not guarantee that impoverished individuals are receiving sufficient food. To address this issue, practical and realistic initiatives need to be implemented. 

The WFP has been actively surveying food security and market conditions since July 2022. This comprehensive survey involves 1,200 randomly selected individuals from all regions of the country.

Initially, the survey focused on assessing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the repercussions of the Russia-Ukraine war, illustrating a decrease in people's income and an increase in expenditures.

The most recent survey underscores that the situation is further deteriorating due to the effects of natural calamities. 

*This report, originally appeared in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat