DPRK Harvest Improves But Serious Nutrition Concerns Persist

Published on 25 November 2011

An assessment conducted by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) indicates an improvement in the main annual harvest for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) compared to 2010 but highlights ongoing concerns over the nutrition situation, particularly among young children.

ROME-- The joint FAO/WFP report, published today, estimates that while harvests are expected to increase by about 8.5 percent over last year, the country will still have a cereal import requirement of 739,000 metric tons. With the planned Government imports for the year at 325,000 tons there remains an uncovered cereal deficit of 414,000 tons.

The report concludes that nearly 3 million people will continue to require food assistance in 2012. Pulses and fortified blended foods are recommended specifically to address the problem of protein deficiency, to help recovery from a severe lean season and to prevent a further spike in malnutrition.

In the immediate term, it also recommended the provision of wheat, barley and potato seeds for planting by North Korean farmers this winter and in the spring of 2012, and the delivery of plastic sheeting to protect their seedbeds through April-June. One of the longer-term recommendations was that DPRK should increase its domestic production by adopting Conservation Agriculture – which is based on minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotations – together with appropriate mechanization. 

“Paddy yields at 4.3 tons per hectare in North Korea are about 60 percent of those in the neighbouring South Korea,” said  Kisan Gunjal, FAO economist and co-leader of the mission. “This productivity gap represents a potential for the North to increase its farm output and eliminate chronic food shortages by adopting appropriate technology, inputs and policies.”

Hospital staff told the assessment mission of a significant increase in malnutrition among young children. Some paediatric wards indicated that cases admitted for malnutrition since April had doubled compared to the same period in 2010. A lack of protein, fats and vital vitamins and minerals continues to compromise proper physical and intellectual development into adulthood.

“Many people have been hit hard by food shortages over the past lean season,” said Arif Husain of WFP’s Food Security Analysis Unit in Rome. “Although improved with the new harvest, the situation remains precarious, especially on a nutritional level. Humanitarian support in the form of fortified blended foods for the most vulnerable continues to be critical.” 

In 2011, coping strategies adopted by many North Koreans to alleviate food shortages have included sourcing supplies from relatives living in rural areas, the collection of wild foods, and using local informal market mechanisms. In some cases, factories and other enterprises assisted their workers by organising expeditions into mountains or by directly distributing purchased food.

DPRK’s commercial import capacity is constrained by high international food and fuel prices, and accumulating  negative annual trade balances. In addition, bilateral and humanitarian food assistance has not been at the levels required to cover the cereal gap. Distributions through the Public Distribution System were reported to be 200 grams per person per day, for five months of 2011 – about one third of the minimum daily energy requirement.

The Crop and Food Security Assessment  Mission (CFSAM) was divided into four teams – including Korean-speaking international staff – and visited 29 counties in all nine agricultural provinces over a ten-day period. This was the first CFSAM on which mission members were able to visit provincial and county markets, as well as state shops.