ROME, ITALY — An assessment conducted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) indicates an improvement in the main annual harvest for North Korea compared to 2010 but highlights ongoing concerns over the nutrition situation, particularly among young children, the FAO said on Nov. 25.

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

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 recommends the provision of wheat, barley and potato seeds for planting this winter and in the spring of 2012, and the delivery of plastic sheeting to protect seedbeds through April-June. One of the longer-term recommendations is that North Korea 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 tonnes per hectare in North Korea are about 60% of those in neighboring 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 measures.”

Hospital staff told the assessment mission of a significant increase in malnutrition among young children. Some pediatric 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 people in North Korea 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 organizing expeditions into mountains or by directly distributing purchased food.