Says IFPRI Director General Johan Swinnen

Bangladesh should conduct real-time monitoring of imports and national supply chains for critical commodities to forecast and respond in a timely manner to policy challenges and tackle the impacts of the dragging Russia-Ukraine war, said Johan Swinnen, director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

"This should be accompanied by efforts to reduce post-harvest loss and enhance access to transportation, processing, and storage services. Policymakers should also expand low-interest agricultural and SME loans to help improve access to food and enhance the agricultural sector's resilience."

He said the situation is getting worse for the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh.

"Studies from Bangladesh and the IFPRI suggest that remedial measures must be taken as soon as possible to address the issue, such as targeted nutrition and social protection interventions, especially in urban areas."

Swinnen shared his observations in an online interview with The Daily Star recently.

Washington-based IFPRI has carried out a study on the impacts of the war on poverty and food security in 19 countries, including Bangladesh. It has found negative impacts on Bangladesh's GDP, poverty, food security and diet.

The war has negatively affected commodity prices, trade, and supply chains across the globe, leading to inflation, financial difficulties, and food crisis in several countries.

Bangladesh, like many other countries, depends on imports of wheat, maize, fertilisers, and other agricultural commodities from Russia and Ukraine.

In particular, Bangladesh imports more than 1.2 million tonnes of fertiliser annually with a large portion coming from Russia. Similarly, wheat consumption has increased as a share of total calories and about 25 per cent of wheat imports came from Ukraine before the war.

With a significant portion of its imports coming from Russia and Ukraine, the war has posed a significant threat to wheat supplies, said Swinnen.

"While the global price of wheat has stabilised, it remains high by historic standards and will continue to impact prices in Bangladesh. We are also seeing impacts on fertiliser, fuel, and several other commodities as a result of the conflict."

The former president of the International Association of Agricultural Economists said it is impressive to see how Bangladesh has progressed in feeding its growing population with domestic agricultural production.

In the early 1970s, Bangladesh was a food-deficit country with a population of about 75 million. Today, the population is 165 million, and the country is now self-sufficient in rice production, which has tripled over the past three decades.

Seed, fertilizer, and irrigation technologies known as "Green Revolution technologies" have played a major role in the growth of rice production in Bangladesh.

Growth in incomes, as well as more stable rice prices, have enabled more people to afford more nutritious foods. Social safety nets have played an important role in supporting the poorest populations.

Still, there are many challenges that may undercut progress in food and nutrition security in Bangladesh, Swinnen warned. 

"Future agricultural growth can be hindered by worsening soil fertility, diminishing access to land and other scarce natural resources, increasing crop vulnerability to pests and diseases, and continuing population growth."

In addition, climate change is already having profound impacts on livelihoods in Bangladesh, particularly those within agriculture.

"So, more efficient and resilient land management practices need to be adopted especially in rice and pulse crop systems to prevent further environmental degradation and better cope with climate shocks."

He said advancements in nutrition have slowed down.

For example, while there have been significant improvements in reducing stunting in Bangladesh, it still affects about one out of three children under five. Early childhood malnutrition increases the risk of disease and impairs productivity throughout the life cycle.

"Bangladesh has made significant strides in addressing food security. Moving forward, it is critical to building on this progress with evidence-based policies for better nutrition and more sustainable production," said Swinnen. 

Progress in the ensuing nutrition security has been slow despite the increased availability of foods, including staples. Swinnen explained many countries have experienced increasing rates of chronic malnutrition, micro-nutrient deficiency, and obesity over the past 10 years.

The rapid growth in the production and consumption of ultra-processed foods has also led to lower diet quality in many countries. These trends have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the reverberations of the war in Ukraine on food systems.

When food prices undergo sudden and drastic increases, families tend to reduce their consumption of healthy foods and instead consume more staples that are relatively cheaper but less nutritious, according to Swinnen.

"This perpetuates malnutrition and can have long-lasting consequences for pregnant women and young children."

A former lead economist at the World Bank and economic adviser to the European Commission, Swinnen suggested policymakers focus their efforts on three main areas to improve diets.

The first is scaling up nutrition education, which can include nutrition visits from healthcare workers, cooking demonstrations, social media campaigns, and many other interventions, which can often be paired with other community and agricultural development activities.

The second is government spending, which has an important role to play in improving diets. Nutrition-sensitive social protection measures can help families maintain healthy diets while coping with shocks such as the current food price spike.

The third is policymakers can take action to improve the food environment.

"Governments can opt to mandate labelling and certification requirements that provide consumers with important information on the quality of different food items," said Swinnen.

"Policymakers can also set regulations that limit the marketing and sale of ultra-processed foods in schools or other public spaces."

The IFPRI chief pointed out that an important cause of child stunting in Bangladesh is that mothers do not consume enough healthy, nutritious food during pregnancy.

"Efforts to further reduce the problem of child under-nutrition will have to focus on this challenge," he said, adding that social protection programmes are another important avenue to protect food security. 

Swinnen is also the managing director for system transformation of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global partnership that unites organisations engaged in research for a food-secure future.

Currently, the Systems Transformation Science Group is leading 11 initiatives that address all five CGIAR impact areas: climate adaptation and mitigation; environmental health and biodiversity; nutrition, health, and food security; poverty reduction, livelihoods, and jobs; and gender equality, youth, and social inclusion.

All of these will produce valuable insights that are relevant to Bangladesh and other regional partners, said Swinnen.

For example, its Foresight Initiative will collaborate closely with country partners to provide state-of-the-art analytics and policy advice in response to frequent shocks and the Sustainable Healthy Diets Initiative will identify policy options and strengthen capacity for developing pathways to more healthy diets, better livelihoods, and greater equity.

Swinnen thinks research and innovation will be critical to improving the sustainability of the world's food systems and improving diets while continuing to provide enough food for a growing global population.

"Our collaboration in Bangladesh and the region has demonstrated this potential and I am excited to see what we can do together in the coming years."


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