Food security as a crosscutting concept for policy making in Georgia

It’s been a year since Oxfam began implementing its food security project in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. food security, as a term and concept denominating a comprehensive set of policies for sustainable food policy, has been presented in Georgian public discourse through  Oxfam’s project titled Improving Regional Food Security through National Strategies and Small Holder Production in the South Caucasus. Food security is achieved when a framework of State policies and approaches ensure the availability of nutritious and diversified food at affordable prices in the country. Often, food security is even considered as a matter of national security, in a sense that if the policy framework does not create favourable circumstances for a food secure future, then national security can also be at stake. Therefore, it is crucial that short-term and long-term policy planning is in place in order to reduce the negative impact on people caused by food deficits. Commitment to develop food security policies require first and foremost a political will and are represented by a consistent and mutually reinforcing set of programmes, whose prime aim is to ensure the stable supply of safe and nutritious food in the country.

The gravity and importance of food security became apparent in 2008 after the financial crisis which led to complex macro-economic shocks across the world. In addition, many experts believe that the wave of revolutions in 2010 in northern African countries (Egypt and Tunisia) were a result of rising food prices and a decline in food supplies. Food is of course the main commodity and therefore in less developed countries such as Georgia, food crisis can have devastating effects as a whole.

The latest statistics revealed that on average, Georgian residents spend more than half of their income (54%) on food while developed countries spend between 10 and 15%. Circumstances are worsened by the fact that 70% of food consumed in Georgia is imported. This indicates that in 2012, Georgia spent 1.1 billion US dollars to purchase food through import. Things become considerably more alarming when we look at the current currency crisis and the dramatic depreciation of Georgia’s national currency. To put this into perspective, the amount paid for food imports is almost equal to the state budget administrative costs (The administrative State budget for 2014 was 2.1 bil. GEL) i.e. the total amount that each citizen pays for funding state bureaucracy.

This tendency will undoubtedly have a negative impact not only on food security but also on sustainable economic development in Georgia. Besides the negative food trade balance, the general trade balance in Georgia is also detrimental as the country highly dependent on imports. Low food self-sufficiency is further exacerbated by the fact that the diet of Georgians  consists of high consumption of bread and bakery products, which is 1.8-2.0 times higher than the generally accepted physiological norm. This of course, is no surprise. Besides the fact that most Georgian traditional cuisine consists of starch products due to the widespread struggle for food, the Georgian population does not have a diversified diet, meaning that they mainly feed on bread and other products. Therefore, in Georgia, 62% of calories comes from starch foodstuffs (in developed countries this does not exceed 15%).

In this regard, it is worth emphasising Georgia’s high dependence on imports for wheat and flour, which usually come from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Local production in Georgia only meets 12% of wheat demand, which roughly represents 1 month worth of stock/supplies. Many academics and politicians usually agree that due to the small territorial space and fragmented agricultural land, Georgia cannot fully meet the demands of wheat. However, the tendencies of high bread consumption could further worsen and put the country’s food security at risk. What would happen if the country is not able to provide a sufficient amount of bread? Which alternative strategies should be in place to avoid such shocks? These are the areas that should be the concern of food security vision and policies.

The wheat example clearly demonstrates the need for food security policies, but of course the concept is not limited to wheat only. It is crucial that the government has a comprehensive vision on other essential products as well. However, the situation in this regard is also unfavourable, as the consumer basket has been inadequately reduced as the minimum wage threshold is closely linked with the consumer basket. The minimum subsistence allowance currently stands at 160 GEL.

Food security does not only imply physical consumption of food. An integral part of food security is also food quality, balanced energy value intake and the availability of micronutrients necessary for the healthy development of the human body. According to the latest data, the current situation is rather alarming. Due to high dependence on starch products and the lack of various micronutrients, children of up to 5 years of age often suffer from growth retardation and have general delays in physical development.

These statistics are very concerning; inevitably, the country will incur high expenses in the coming decades, which will manifest itself through the inadequate development of the workforce, and the deterioration of the nation’s health status which will become a burden on public health care costs.

Nutritious diet is a cornerstone for food security; although food is an integral part of our daily life, it often represents a cultural heritage and a national identity. But of course its primary function is to ensure the adequate physical and mental development of humans. The promotion of nutritious diets in many Western countries forms part of the national public policies on food security. In this regard, it is crucial to be aware of the role of women as the main determinants of healthy eating habits at the household level. In a patriarchal society like Georgia, it is the woman who assumes the responsibility of food preparation, therefore a gender sensitive approach is rather important when drawing up public policies concerning public health and eating habits. This will comprise of raising the awareness of women about nutritious diets or other encouraging activities which promote diets with the essential micronutrients. At the same time, unhealthy diets and the lack of micronutrients have a disproportionately harmful impact on women compared to men, as demonstrated by high levels of anaemia in women and severe complications during pregnancy. Therefore, policy makers should have a strong regard for healthy diets whilst drafting the relevant policies as this is a fundamental part of food security and adopting a gender sensitive approach is equally important.

Food security is a complex issue. It encompasses not only thorough and strategic planning for agriculture but also careful considerations for health and education. This article presents a brief overview of the issues and does not discuss other critical aspects characterising current circumstances in Georgia such as supporting small scale farmers through resources and education, land reforms, the promotion of biodiversity, climate change, infrastructure, growth in export of agricultural products, the role of the private sector in food security etc. However, it is worth mentioning that through Oxfam’s support, the Ministry of Agriculture initiated the creation of an inter-ministerial working group on food security where all relevant ministries will be represented such as the Ministries of Healthcare, Education, Economy, Environmental Protection, Infrastructure and Agriculture. This Project supports the Government to develop a clear vision on food security for the first time in the history of public policy making in Georgia. Accordingly, Oxfam within its mandate will support to build a public opinion around food security so that it can be mirrored in the food security policy strategies and documents, thus contributing to a consistent and comprehensive policy making process in Georgia.