Better harvests in DPR Korea but undernutrition persists

FAO and WFP publish new assessment report

12 November 2012, Rome/Pyongyang - A nationwide assessment by United Nations agencies estimates there has been an increase in staple food production in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) for the second year running. This, however, should not mask an ongoing struggle with undernutrition and a lack of vital protein and fat in the diet, especially for an estimated 2.8 million vulnerable people.  

The joint Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) visited all nine agricultural provinces in late September/early October, around the main annual cereal harvest.

Of particular concern to the mission was a 30 per cent decline in soybean production, as well as the limited quantity of vegetables available, perpetuating a chronic lack of key proteins, oils, fats, vitamins and micronutrients in most diets. Soybean production was the primary victim of a prolonged dry spell in the first half of the 2012 main agricultural season. The impact of the dry spell on the maize harvest was largely mitigated by irrigation as people were mobilised on a huge scale to water crops by hand.

Overall production for the main 2012 harvest and 2013 early season crops is expected to be 5.8 million metric tons, an improvement of ten percent over last year. The mission estimates a cereal import requirement of 507 000 metric tons to meet the country's basic food needs. Assuming the Government's cereal import target of 300 000 metric tons is met, this would leave a staple food deficit of 207 000 metric tons – the lowest in many years.

"The country needs to produce more protein-rich foods like soybean and fish and to put more effort into growing two crops a year so a more varied diet is available for everyone," said Kisan Gunjal, FAO economist and co-leader of the mission. Household vegetable gardens would help improve nutrition and it is also necessary to make changes to the agricultural marketing system that would allow farmers to sell their rice, maize and wheat at market, he said.

"DPR Korea still needs international help but there is a clear way forward that will lead to increased food production and better nutrition," said Gunjal.

Levels of acute malnutrition have declined, but there is still cause for concern, as many young children remain highly vulnerable to shocks. A more steady supply of specialised nutritious foods such as fortified biscuits and nutritious blended foods including "Super Cereal" during the lean season was an important factor in keeping malnutrition at bay.

"This assessment has shown very clearly that we are having an impact in our work to address undernutrition and it is vital that our programme continues to reach over one million children in nurseries, kindergartens and primary schools with predictable and adequate supplies," said WFP DPRK Country Director Claudia von Roehl.

"The new harvest figures are good news, but the lack of proteins and fats in the diet is alarming. We must double our efforts to reach two million children with a steady stream of nutritious foods and so provide a more balanced, healthy diet," she said.

Support to pregnant and nursing women also remains a priority, as their intake of nutritious foods such as pulses and oils is important during pregnancy and after childbirth, a critical period for the health of their infants.

Photo: ©WFP/Rein Skullerud
Cooking a meal of broken rice and wheat in DPR Korea.