Some food for thought
Waqar Mustafa
The government last week declared national emergency after swarms of desert locusts hit the eastern part of the country. The large herbivores resembling grasshoppers, which arrived in the country from Iran in June, have already ravaged cotton, wheat, maize and other crops. With climate change and increased rainfall in the country’s southwestern parts in the summer season majorly contributing in their breeding, locusts’ potential for large-scale destruction is threatening to make Pakistan more food insecure than it is now.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security is 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 and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” But in Pakistan, a lower middle-income country and the sixth most populous in the world, about 60 per cent of people are food insecure, and malnutrition is highly prevalent, the UN World Food Program says. Per capita consumption of food products having high-nutritional value like beef, chicken, fish, milk, vegetables, and fruits is almost 6-10 times lower than that of developed countries. WFP reports, 44 per cent of Pakistani children younger than five years of age are stunted and suffer from acute malnutrition costing the economy three per cent of GDP ($7.6 billion) a year.
Pakistan is self-sufficient in major staples. It is ranked eighth in producing wheat, tenth in rice, fifth in sugarcane, and fourth in milk production. Accessibility is poor, however. The State Bank of Pakistan blames the dismal state of food insecurity primarily on the limited economic access of the poorest and the most vulnerable, around 50 million people, to disruptions in the food chain. Import dependence for certain items and little attention to the local production of minor crops and livestock produce, such as pulses, fruits, vegetables, nuts and oilseeds, and a steady hike in the prices of meat and dairy products have also contributed to the nutritional insecurity. Wheat accounts for around half of the calories Pakistanis consume. But its price in Pakistan is higher than the global wheat price.
The WFP sees affordability as ‘the greatest barrier to achieving a nutritious diet’; it estimates that most Pakistanis are unable to afford a nutritionally adequate diet. Efforts to stabilise and increase the real incomes of the poor through cash transfers or in-kind assistance have not been effective due to poor governance and service delivery.
Moreover, recurring extreme weather events such as drought, earthquakes, and floods, along with conflicts and economic crisis have exacerbated food insecurity. Pakistan experienced more than 65 per cent land extension during 1947-80, when the most fertile available land was brought into cultivation. Beyond this period, there has been little expansion in the cropping area. Instead, the agriculture land has been facing degradation caused by water and wind erosion, depletion of soil fertility, deforestation, unsustainable livestock grazing, and water logging practices, and rapid urbanisation.
The central bank says that if population continues to increase at the existing pace (about two per cent a year, according to 2017 census that counted Pakistani people as more than 207 million) over the next couple of decades, it will become extremely challenging for the country to sustain food self-sufficiency. Also, growing water shortages are expected to drag down yield of different crops.
In 2018, the country’s first food security policy was introduced. It aims to alleviate poverty, eradicate hunger, and promote sustainable food production through close co-operation between federal and provincial governments, the implementation of new food safety measures and the launch of a ‘zero hunger’ programme. However, little has been done to translate the policy into practice.
To answer its rising food security threats, Pakistan needs to invest in local capacity building, improving access to world markets, making crops nutritive and resilient to climate change, securing more farmland, empowering small landholders, de-urbanisation, preservation of water, recycling of crop and livestock waste, and saving of food through public awareness drives.
Until these steps are taken, Pakistan’s poor are living on the edge.