Still not enough – November 2013 WFP/FAO Food Security Assessment summary

On November 29, 2013, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) published its annual assessment of food security in the DPRK. Visiting North Korea between September 27 and October 11, the Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM) had the opportunity to observe not only the autumn harvest but also the transfer of surplus grains to deficit areas and assess the state of consumption in various parts of the country.

There were some good news. The overall crop production in 2013/14 increased about 5% from 2012/13 yields – a total output of 5.98 million tonnes, 5.03 million tonnes if one factors in the milling. With 300,000 tonnes of commercial imports planned, the food deficit has decreased to 40,000 tonnes, narrowest in many years. This is a huge improvement from last year’s deficit, which stood at 207,000 tonnes after planned imports around 300,000 tonnes from abroad (around 398,636 tonnes of cereals were imported in 2012/13 alongside 100,000 tonnes of bilateral and multi-lateral aid).

Nonetheless, major challenges remain

  • Volatility in agricultural production
  • Low living standards of the population
  • Immense logistical challenges for the public distribution system (PDS)

Volatility in agricultural production

The 2012 Mission highlighted that production of protein commodities, including soybeans, were crucial for further improvement of conditions in the DPRK. However, “unusually early and heavy rains in July and early August compromised maize and soybean yields,” resulting in a second consecutive year of decline in output (-6% from last year, -31% compared with 2011).

Although the main paddy crops were not as heavily affected, low temperatures at the beginning of the agricultural season, the heavy rains that reduced soybean output, and low levels of sunshine underscored the continued need for simple farming supplies, such as plastic sheeting (most farms reported having 30 to 80 percent of the sheets they needed – a significant portion supplied by the FAO), to ensure the timely cultivation of crops.

In fertilizer usage, some farms reported “late delivery of urea, possibly due to poor road conditions and to late availability from the Namhung Fertilizer Plant in South Pyongan.” Overall, the supply of phosphate was down slightly and the supply of potash was “lowest in several years.”

Table 3. Supply of nitrogenous fertilizers to provinces, 2013

Province

Planned (tonnes)

Supplied (tonnes)

Supplied/Planned (%)

Pyongyang

32,942

21,086

64

S Pyongan

80,174

72,981

91

N Pyongan

138,289

134,748

97

Chagang

31,664

23,924

76

S Hwanghae

167,872

173,569

103

N Hwanghae

80,743

72,377

90

Kangwon

41,879

30,113

72

S Hamgyong

77,219

66,631

86

N Hamgyong

54,747

44,754

82

Ryanggang

30,275

22,208

73

Nampo

32,826

23,624

72

Total

768,630

686,015

89

However, mechanization was still the “most frequently cited constraint to increased crop production in DPRK.”

While some farms utilize high-power tractors donated to the DPRK from European state, most farms utilize the 28-horsepower Chollima, which

farm managers complain… is not sufficiently powerful to plough to the required depth, that it is too slow for the amount of land preparation that needs to be completed in a short space of time, and that the numbers of tractors are simply inadequate. This and the limited supply of diesel meant that for many farms, especially those located outside the Rice Bowl, mechanized land preparation could only be carried out on about 60 percent of their arable area, with the remaining land being prepared by oxen. Inadequate farm power is also a major obstacle to expansion of the area under winter wheat.

Compared to 2012, there has been a 2% increase in the total number of tractors and a 1.4% increase in the operational rate. Likewise, diesel usage was also higher. However, as noted above, use of higher-powered tractors is the key to enhancing productivity. The government has recently acknowledged that the fuel contamination, caused by multiple transfers of storage containers, must be tackled before the country can begin utilizing higher-powered engines that are not as tolerant of impurities.

Table 5. Tractor numbers and fuel consumption in 2013 compared with 2012

Province

Number of tractors in 2013

% operational in 2013

Number of tractors in 2012

% operational in 2012

% change in total number of tractors

% Change in number of operational tractors

Pyongyang

2,845

73

2,712

72

5

1

South Pyongan

7,234

73

7,795

71

-7

3

North Pyongan

8,618

74

8,350

72

3

3

Chagang

1,787

74

1,737

72

3

3

South

Hwanghae

12,328

72

11,863

73

4

-1

North

Hwanghae

7,245

73

7,030

70

3

4

Kangwon

3,495

70

3,336

68

5

3

South

Hamgyong

6,098

72

5,951

70

2

3

North

Hamgyong

4,191

73

3,993

73

5

0

Ryanggang

2,256

72

2,169

73

4

-1

Nampo City

2,913

72

2,690

70

8

3

Total

59,010

73

57,626

72

2

1.4

Fuel

Type

2013

2012

% change, 2012 to 2013

Diesel

64,425

64,480

0

Petrol

7,000

7,210

-3

Total

71,425

71,690

– <1

Low living standards of the population

Despite slight improvement in the overall crop output and narrowing the food deficit to a recent low, these successes are not reflected in the living standards of the people in the country. Protein and oil consumption, which the 2012 assessment had noted as being insufficient, remains low.

While child malnutrition has steadily decline since the famine, rates still remain high and the Mission noted that “coordinated efforts among the sectors of nutrition, health, food security, water, hygiene and sanitation are essential to further improve the nutrition status of women and children.”

Food security is particularly low for those dependent on the public distribution system (PDS).

Acceptable food consumption

Borderline Food consumption

Poor Food Consumption

Cooperative farmers

27.6%

44.8%

27.6%

PDS dependents

8.3%

54.2%

37.5%

Average

15.6%

50.6%

33.8%

The official government target of 573 grams of cereal per person per day is constrained by not only output, but also issues in the supply chain “such as storage, transport and commodity tracking.”

According to the data received from the Ministry of Food Administration and Procurement, for most of 2013 the monthly average ration reached 400 grams per person per day, excluding the months that comprise the lean season; In June and July, the average ration size was 390 grams per person per day, dropping to 350 grams for the first distribution in August, to 320 grams for the second August distribution, and to 310 grams in September. The planned ration for October is 390 grams per person per day and it is expected that the rations will increase back to 400 grams per person per day for the months of November and December. Given the potential delays in moving food from surplus to deficit areas and then onwards to PDCs [public distribution centers], the target of 400 grams may well be adjusted—especially in northern and eastern provinces

Furthermore reserve stocks were extremely limited in most parts of the country and many counties, particularly those in the Northeast, revealed they had zero stocks.   

But since the Great Famine, other mechanisms have contributed to household sustenance. In particular, markets have been crucial in ensuring people’s access to food.

Markets may have contributed to dietary diversity and nutrition in DPRK. The CFSAM Mission observed that mainly women tend to be engaged in market related activities including bartering, buying and selling. The products bartered and sold on farm and city markets originate mainly from kitchen gardens. The diversity of fresh products provides a means for improving both quantity and quality of the diet. As children consume their main meals in child institutions, the improved dietary diversity available through market exchanges may currently be benefiting women’s diets more than their children’s.

Immense logistical challenges for the public distribution system (PDS)

As PDS-dependents are heavily affected by poor consumption, more efficient transfers of surplus grains to deficit areas are a key issue that remains to be tackled.

The current transfer system is highly inefficient with Pyongyang serving as the primary transport hub. This is because

  • decisions are made centrally by the Ministry of Food Administration and Procurement regarding the amount and destination of surplus production
  • the logistics of re-distributing from south/west to north/east rely heavily on the limited rail network, much of which passes through Pyongyang

Some areas along the Sino-DPRK border such as North and South Pyongan (possibly via Sinuiju), Ryanggang (via Hyesan), and North Hamgyong (via Hoeryong) receive transfers from China.

The key challenge lies in poor transportation networks and roads that are inaccessible in the winter. Because of the centralized nature of the distribution, delay in food transfers to a single distribution point, further disrupts access down the supply chain. These delays appear to be the core reason why the PDS-dependent populations suffers from higher than average levels of poor food/nutrition consumption.

The Mission recommends national and international support for:

  • Sustainable farming practices, better price and market incentives for farmers, and improvement in farm mechanization.
  • Stimulate spring crop production and implement disaster preparedness and response programmes.
  • Improve dietary diversity and feeding practices for young children and women through different strategies such as behavioural change, market reform, and encouraging livestock and fish production; strengthening treatment of severe and moderate acute malnutrition and improving hygiene and sanitation practices.

Furthermore

  • The price paid to farms for soybean should be increased to KPW 55/kg in order to encourage an expansion in production.
  • Efforts should be redoubled to increase reliance on locally produced organic fertilizers, while applications of lime and phosphate fertilizers should be increased to be in appropriate proportion of nitrogenous fertilizer.
  • High-cold-tolerant winter wheat varieties should be tested to help revitalize the double cropping programme.
  • Conservation agriculture (minimum tillage) should continue to be encouraged.
  • The country should prioritise the manufacturing of appropriate tractors and farm machinery. On the other hand, international donations of tractors must take account of local capacity to operate, service and repair machinery, and to provide spare parts.
  • The adoption of an incentive system through relevant reforms in agricultural marketing and also more investment in agriculture/food production to increase productivity and strengthen resilience to shocks to help improve the country’s food security.
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About Yong Kwon

Analyst of international relations, writer of history, observer of North Korea's food and monetary policies, and Korea blogger for the Diplomat
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4 Responses to Still not enough – November 2013 WFP/FAO Food Security Assessment summary

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