Increased agricultural trade among South Asian countries is the answer to achieve food security in the region than initiatives like SAARC Food Bank, an Indian think-tank said.

In a study titled “Food Security in South Asia: Issues and Opportunities”, published by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), authors Surabhi Mittal and Deepti Sethi said regional trade among SAARC countries is at present impeded by fairly high tariff and non-tariff barriers.

“At the regional level, increased agricultural trade between South Asian countries will play a far more important role in achieving food security than initiatives like the setting up of the SAARC Food Bank, which is essentially a mechanism to handle emergency situations,” the study said.

It pointed out that South Asia, comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, has the highest number of people — 423 million — living on less than a dollar a day. The region has the highest — 299 million undernourished and poor people and about 40 per cent of the world’s hungry.

Quoting estimates by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the ICRIER study said “Asia will account for about half of the world’s undernourished population, of which two-thirds will be from South Asia by 2010.”

The authors have suggested that reduction of trade barriers, ensuring simultaneously that policies do not distort domestic incentive systems would go a long way in promoting regional agricultural trade.

“It is also important for South Asian countries to address the issue of speed and efficiency of food movements from surplus to deficit areas across the region, particularly in a crisis situation. This would require addressing issues regarding the efficiency of transportation and transportation infrastructure and the development of storage capacities within different countries,” it said.

Pointing that the SAARC Food Bank has not been operational even during times of crisis, the study aims to identify issues relating to food security, policy initiatives taken to tackle these issues, evaluate these policies and suggest measures to overcome identified constraints.

“Making the region food secure will require action both at the national and regional levels,” the study said.

The authors also said one of the major issues that many South Asian countries need to tackle is the tendency to move away from the cultivation of staples such as wheat and rice towards the cultivation of high value (cash) crops such as oilseeds, sugarcane and horticulture.

“This could prove a particularly tricky issue to handle since it involves a trade-off between raising farm incomes and meeting rising domestic demand for staples,” it said, adding that an integrated strategy that balances these two objectives will need to be put in place.