Urgency of food security ecosystem

In July 2023, India witnessed a skyrocketing price of tomatoes. This has put the lives of ordinary Indians in peril. In order to stabilize prices within India, a strategy was initiated to lower tomato prices by importing them from Nepal. This was confirmed by Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman’s speech in parliament. As a result, the price of tomatoes has dropped from INR 70 to INR 50 per KG since August 15th, 2023. The price of tomatoes is a key ingredient in Indian kitchens, and an increase in its price affects millions of ordinary Indians. Recognizing this fact, the Indian government acted immediately.

India prohibited the global export of non-Basmati rice. This action by India has impacted Nepal, potentially leading to a rice crisis in the Nepali market. In response, Nepal requested one hundred thousand tons of rice, 50 thousand tons of sugar, and five thousand tons of paddy from the Indian government in July 2023. Following Nepal’s request, the Indian government provided ninety-five thousand tons of rice to Nepal in October 2023, which will be a lifeline during Nepal’s ongoing one-month-long festive season.

Food security issues

Being self-reliant on food security is not only a humanitarian imperative where a country gains the ability to support others during times of crisis but also a strategic advantage where control over ‘food’ supply and production can be weaponized against others. Well, this isn’t morally correct in terms of the larger picture of humanity, but it has been used widely by the powerful countries.

This means that if a country only exports a small portion of its production, the importing country is heavily affected. This vulnerability was evident during the Russia-Ukraine war, when vital grain products were exported to vulnerable regions of Africa via the Black Sea. Suddenly, war erupted, putting supplies in jeopardy. This further led to an increase in the price of food supplies worldwide due to the Russia-Ukraine war, and a similar increase might occur in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. In July 2023, the price of rice in the global market increased by 2.8 percent, reaching its highest level in nearly 122 years. This was a direct consequence of Russia’s ban on the export of food products through the Black Sea route, along with the export ban of non-basmati rice by India, as reported by the FAO of the United Nations. This price increase is the highest since September 2011. Therefore, food security and storage are vital safeguards in possible times of war or famine. This is why there is a famous Nepali saying: “Save seed in famine and protect yourself in chaos”. In 2023, India was ranked 111th and Nepal 69th on the Global Hunger Index, indicating a ‘serious’ and ‘moderate’ state of food security, respectively. Hence, substantial actions from the Indian government are necessary to improve food security. Although the Indian cabinet approved the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana (PMGKAY), the flagship project of the Indian government aimed at establishing a new integrated food security scheme that commenced in January 2023, the full realization of this project is yet to be achieved. Though India is one of the world’s largest suppliers of agriculture products, there is a need for better harmonization of its agricultural crops with the demands of its grassroots public for food.

According to the Global Food Policy Report 2023, Nepal experienced approximately 13% food insecurity, with over 10% classified as severe food insecurity from 2017–2019. The report further highlights that disruptions in the food supply chain and unregulated migrations are amplifying the food security issue.

Way Forward

India’s request to import tomatoes from Nepal, alongside Nepal’s demand for rice, paddy, and sugar, highlights the strength of bilateral cooperation during times of crisis. This incident demonstrates the value of true friendship and neighbors supporting each other in challenging moments. However, it’s worth noting that sometimes bilateral issues between Nepal and India are politicized for their own gain, potentially exacerbating crises. As Nepal and India deepen their economic ties and strive for mutual prosperity, it becomes evident that their partnership is not only advantageous but also essential for the well-being of both nations and their people.

Achieving self-reliance in food production is a formidable challenge, partly due to our struggles in efficiently managing land for a holistic approach. In foreign policy, self-reliance on food is also a special strength that allows us to assert our national interests in front of powerful countries. Without this self-sufficiency and the fact that our country’s food supply is heavily dependent on foreign sources, maintaining our sovereignty in today’s ever-changing world political situation would be challenging.

Lastly, while India provided rice to Nepal upon her request, it may not be sustainable for India to provide in the long term, especially during the time of special situations inside India. This is because India is facing an election in 2024, and ensuring price stability within the country is crucial to managing public sentiment. Achieving this requires a sufficient reserve within the country. In a broader context, Nepal and India can collaborate to enhance the food security ecosystem with the common concept of a food bank and a food reserve godown. India is classified as being in a ‘serious’ stage, according to the Hunger Index. Similarly, due to its limited rice production, Nepal is struggling to meet its demand. This underscores the necessity for both countries to work together to establish a robust food security ecosystem.

Saurav Raj Pant
Saurav Raj Pant
PhD. Student of International Relations & Diplomacy of Tribhuvan University, Nepal