Food security, the farmers of Pakistan and coronavirus
Hina Ayra
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the concept of food security is flexible, but is widely believed to exist “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs.
Pakistan is presently self-sufficient in major staples, ranked at eighth in producing wheat, tenth in rice, fifth in sugarcane, and fourth in milk production. Despite that, only 63.1 percent of the country’s households are “food secure,” according to the Ministry of Health and UNICEF’s National Nutritional Survey 2018.
The farmers of Pakistan are playing a vital role in the sustainability of agricultural and food security in the country and for exports as well, but are facing a great deal of challenges. Their struggles seem endless, sustaining losses after recent locust attacks and now the multiple impacts of the current coronavirus pandemic. The lag between the sowing of crops to harvest time is routine for the farmers, but now their patience is moving toward frustration as they fight a second agricultural emergency at the national level.
According to the reports by government agencies, Locusts considerably damaged standing crops and caused serious damage to farmers and the national exchequer. It is unfortunate that despite the government trumpeting its support for the agricultural sector during the crisis, most farmers felt abandoned and left on their own to fight out the worst of the infestation.
However, a lack of precautions on the part of the Punjab Government are disturbing not only for farmers but also for the overall population. The farmers’ considerable contribution to Pakistan’s GDP (above 21 percent) is likely to endure more suffering during the current pandemic, especially Punjab province which is so far leading the tally of confirmed virus cases and is the main contributor toward the country’s agricultural resources due to its land fertility and water availability.
Worldwide lock-downs and restrictive flow of goods have imposed considerable checks on imports and exports everywhere. These restrictive checks have equally impacted imports and exports in the agricultural domain, including the outflow of produce as well as essential requirements.
Pakistan has a major role worldwide as a rice exporter, and annually exports two million tons, which is 10 percent of the world’s trade in rice. Particularly in basmati rice, Pakistan’s share is around 25 percent in exports. Rice exports contribute the second highest source of income and foreign exchange for Pakistan, according to the ministry of commerce.
The excess being exported is a healthy activity for all, but a restrictive environment due to the pandemic is likely to put great stress on farmers particularly. An equal negative impact is now foreseen on agricultural imports, particularly seeds, pesticides, fungicides, special fertilizers etc.
There has been much complacency in the field of agricultural research and development, resulting in the over reliance on imported pesticides, fungicides, seeds and other appliances. It is painful to mention that even a simple set of equipment for High Efficiency Irrigation Systems (HEIS) are on the import list. Another simmering issue for farmers are their exploitation at the hands of agricultural industry importers who will mint good money in this pandemic crisis.
Relying on government for agricultural imports has never been and can’t be a good solution to match the demands of a thriving agricultural industry. Instead, consistent research and development and better harmonizing and managing of the local resource base can put reliance upon the indigenous agricultural support industry.
Our farmers constitute a bulk of the population with limited land holdings and meager financial standings, and with the novel coronavirus still rapidly spreading, food security for all must be ensured with urgent action taken at the global and country level.
There is also a need to closely monitor food prices and markets. The transparent dissemination of information will strengthen government management over the food market.
It is also necessary to ensure international and national agricultural and food supply chains function normally. China has set a good example of how to ensure food security during the current epidemic by, for instance, opening a “green channel” for fresh agricultural products and banning unauthorized roadblocks.
Moreover, it is important to ensure the smooth flow of global trade and to make full use of the international market as a vital tool to secure food supply. And global institutions such as the World Trade Organization, FAO, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) must ask countries to not use COVID-19 as an excuse to issue trade protectionist policies.