8.7 million North Koreans need food assistance

Low yields because of lack of fertilizer and fuel

8 December 2008, Rome - Around 40 percent of the population of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), an estimated 8.7 million people, mostly young children, pregnant and nursing women and the elderly, will urgently need food assistance because of an expected cereals deficit in the coming months, FAO and the World Food Programme (WFP) said in a joint report today.

Despite favourable climate conditions during the past growing season, the country's agricultural production will not meet basic food needs this year, according to the FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission report. The joint mission visited the DPRK from 9-24 October 2008; it was the first such comprehensive field assessment mission since 2004.

"DPRK will face a severe food situation over the coming months," said Henri Josserand, Chief of the FAO Global Information and Early Warning System. "Despite good weather and hard work by farmers and many city dwellers, they could not overcome critical shortages of fertilizer and fuel. The prospects for next year are bleak, with a substantial deficit of basic foods that will only partly be covered by commercial imports and anticipated food aid."

The report estimates the total food production to be 4.21 million tonnes for the 2008/2009 marketing year (November 2008-October 2009), leaving the DPRK to face a cereal deficit of 836 000 tonnes, even with commercial imports (around 500 000 tonnes). Food assistance requirements to feed almost 9 million people are estimated at 800 000 tonnes until the next harvest in October 2009.

"The findings of the mission confirm WFP's fears that millions of DPRK households will suffer through yet another year of food shortages," said Torben Due, WFP DPRK Representative in a statement from Pyongyang. "With such a large food gap, accessing enough food and a balanced diet will be almost impossible, particularly for families living in urban areas or in the remote food-deficit provinces in the Northeast. This could have grave consequences for the health of the most vulnerable groups."

Modest prospects

The low output of the farming sector in the DPRK is mainly caused by a long-term decline in soil fertility, shortages of inputs, extreme weather events, and structural issues, including constraints on market activities. Seeds were available in 2008, but fertilizer supplies were only 60 percent of deliveries in 2007 and fuel supplies amounted to 70 percent of last year's levels. Yields for all crops are also very low due to high soil acidity, and increasing vulnerability to extreme weather events, such as the floods of August 2007.

"The current agricultural production model and farming techniques are not sustainable. The country has been taking up conservation agriculture, improved seed multiplication and other efficient practices, but turning the whole sector around will take quite some time," Josserand added.

Low food rations

The average DPRK household will continue "to face major challenges in accessing sufficient food" in the coming year, FAO and WFP warned. Only 142 kg will be available on average per person from domestic production, compared to an estimated 167 kg needed for a healthy diet.

Food rations through the Public Distribution System (PDS), the main source of food for around 70 percent of the population, are expected to be drastically reduced, particularly during the agricultural lean season from June through October.

"Previous food security assessments have shown that the majority of families in DPRK are already cutting down the average number of meals per day and consuming a diet treacherously poor in diversity," said Due.

Photo: ©WFP/Michael Huggins
Millions of families are facing another year of food shortages.