Is Bangladesh likely to achieve its 2021 universal food security target?

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Since gaining independence in 1971, food security issues in Bangladesh have been amongst the highest priorities on the government’s agenda. This is because Bangladesh faces a number of demographic, social and ecological challenges, which make it particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. These challenges are further exacerbated by climate change, including the consequences of sea level rise. Silent threats such as soil and river salinity and arsenic contamination have direct and indirect effects on agricultural production and households’ access to food.
In order to target the continuing food security threats the Government of Bangladesh has developed a number of high level policy initiatives, including Vision 2021 and the related Perspective Plan. Achieving food security is also a key objective of the country’s poverty reduction strategy and has been recognised to be the highest risk in the Bangladesh Climate Change Action Plan. Strategic objectives include realizing universal food security, which implies that the country needs to be not only self-sufficient in terms of food production but also manage equitable distribution of nutritious food. Ensuring universal food security is particularly challenging given the multidimensional nature of the food security concept which comprises food availability, physical and financial access to food, food utilisation and food stability.

Today, food availability in Bangladesh remains an enduring problem. Rice constitutes the main crop in the country accounting for around 80 per cent of the land area. Despite the fact that rice production has been increasing, Bangladesh has recently extended its ban on non-fragrant rice varieties.  The analysis of the most recent 2010 Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) (Figure 1) shows that approximately 41 per cent of population fall below the nutritional requirement of 2,122 kcal. The situation is particularly alarming amongst the poorest segments of the society, where around 57 per cent of individuals do not meet their nutritional needs. Food access relates to both physical and financial access. At the macro level, the ILO’s LABORSTA index suggests that between 2002 and 2010, food prices almost doubled. Complementary analysis of the HIES data shows that around 60 per cent of the Bangladeshi households spend 75 per cent or more of their total expenditure on food.


In addition, the analysis of the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data reveals that food utilisation measured by nutritional outcomes remains a societal problem; approximately 41 per cent of children under five are stunted and 36 per cent are underweight. At the same time, 51 per cent of children suffer from anaemia. Importantly, overweight and obesity, while not official indicators of food security, show a worrying trend. The 2011 DHS report highlighted that almost 17 per cent of ever-married women aged 15-49 were overweight or obese, which constitutes an increase of around 8 percentage points from 2004. Finally, given both the economic and environmental vulnerability of the country, food stability remains a continuous challenge. After the cyclone Sidr food prices rose drastically throughout the country and a considerable proportion of households in disaster affected areas reported not having sufficient food stocks.
While Bangladesh is highly unlikely to achieve its ambitious 2021 universal food security goal, it should be recognised that progress has been made in a number of areas, as reflected by trends in nutritional and hunger indicators (although still alarmingly high). Key priorities for policy should include not only overall poverty reduction and ensuring food sufficiency but also focus on reducing economic inequalities and comprehensive disaster prevention strategies.  

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