MADAGASCAR: Seasonal food shortages on the doorstep

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The price of rice, the staple food of Madagascar's 19 million people, has stabilised, but the country's southern regions, where remote communities are vulnerable to chronic food insecurity, are preparing for the onset of seasonal food shortages that usually start in October. "For the time being, prices in Madagascar are stable, but we cannot say we have overcome the problem," Marco Falcone, emergency coordinator of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Madagascar, told IRIN. "The situation remains very fragile and any change could have a big impact."

ANTANANARIVO, 2 October 2008 (IRIN) - The price of rice, the staple food of Madagascar's 19 million people, has stabilised, but the country's southern regions, where remote communities are vulnerable to chronic food insecurity, are preparing for the onset of seasonal food shortages that usually start in October. 

"For the time being, prices in Madagascar are stable, but we cannot say we have overcome the problem," Marco Falcone, emergency coordinator of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Madagascar, told IRIN. "The situation remains very fragile and any change could have a big impact." 

The government has taken measures to mitigate the impact on Madagascar of the dramatic rise in global food prices during 2008. These include subsidising rice imports, promoting off-season planting and subsidising transport costs to improve distribution. 

Madagascar, which has been rocked by food riots in the past, is one of the biggest per capita consumers of rice in the world. Even slight increases in domestic retail prices - ranging from US$0.55 to $1.15 per kg, depending on the type of rice - can have significant implications, given that over 70 percent of Malagasy survive on less than a dollar a day. 

About 3.5 million tonnes of paddy rice are produced annually, but a further 200,000 tonnes has to be imported to meet national requirements; this year, the gap is estimated at 270,000 tonnes, according to FAO. 

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that chronic food insecurity affects 65 percent of the population, which increases by eight percent during the lean season. 

The areas most affected are the arid south, where very little rice is produced, and the cyclone-prone southeast. "The rice produced in the southern region is not enough," said Falcone. "The technical assistance available to farmers elsewhere is not available here, so old methods and old seed varieties are used. This means there is only one harvest a year." 

Since December 2007 the government has pumped $3.9 million into expanding the WFP's school feeding in the south, more than doubling the number of children reached from 60,000 to 150,000. 

But the southeast coast, which was hit by six cyclones in 2007 - one of the worst seasons on record - remains vulnerable. FAO estimates that 80 percent of last year's harvest was destroyed by cyclones. 

Not only natural disasters have jeopardised food security: a major problem is the lack of a commercial transport infrastructure. "There is no commercial system to transport fresh food, and little commercial interest in doing so," said Falcone. "So people in vulnerable areas have to rely on their own produce." 

Most of Madagascar's food is grown in the central plateau region. The distance it has to travel to markets in the south and southeast often restricts supply and further inflates prices in these remote markets. 

Subsiding imports 
The government has already imported around 50,000 tonnes of rice in 2008, which has been sold at subsidised prices slightly lower than those of most domestically grown varieties, Falcone said. 

But filling the shortfall in the domestic market with subsidised imports could also have an adverse impact. "There is a danger that putting heavily subsidised rice on the market will push rice traders out of the market," warned Falcone. "If this is the case they may refuse to sell until prices rise again," creating the potential for further volatility in the domestic market. 

In May the government banned rice exports to help stabilise the domestic market, but this short-term measure will need to be reconsidered soon if Madagascar is to realise its goal of becoming a net exporter of rice, say observers. 

"We hope, and the government is being encouraged to that end, to consider whether, in the coming months, [the ban on rice exports] could be lifted," Krystyna Bednarska,  WFP country director in Madagascar, told IRIN. "In the medium to long term, Madagascar's ambition is to become a food exporter, and the question of a ban on exports has to be considered as soon as possible." 

The government hopes to triple rice production by 2012, but until improved farming techniques and better transport infrastructures are in place in remote areas, chronic food insecurity is likely to continue.