FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 32

Between food shortages and high prices

Rising prices of food have badly impacted the people of Pakistan. The country had to import wheat and sugar in recent years to check their skyrocketing prices. Besides food shortages and their high prices, wholesome food has also gone out of the reach of the majority of Pakistanis.

Pakistan’s economy largely depends on agriculture but it is a pity that it has been a net importer of food for many decades despite being amongst the world’s top ten producers of wheat, cotton, sugarcane, mango, dates and oranges, and is ranked 10th in rice production. Major crops (wheat, rice, cotton and sugarcane) contribute around 4.9pc, while minor crops contribute 2.1pc to the country’s total GDP. Livestock contributes 11pc to the country’s GDP (60.5pc in the agriculture sector) and employs approximately 35 million people.

Despite its impressive and continuously growing agricultural production, the country is still facing high levels of food insecurity. According to a global report published jointly by FAO, WFP, UNICEF, WHO and IFAD in 2019, 20.3pc of Pakistan’s population (40 million people) is undernourished/food insecure. The prevalence of malnutrition amongst children aged 6-59 months is also very high, with an estimated 40pc children stunted, 28pc underweight, 18pc wasted and 10pc overweight.

Pakistan has been facing wheat and sugar shortages for years now while prices of other food items and vegetables have also reached abnormally high. On the other hand, the United Nations has warned that the world must prepare for further shocks to the food sector. Compared to other economic sectors, agriculture is particularly exposed to dangers such as climate change, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a report. The food system must, therefore, become more resilient from a biological and socio-economic perspective in order to ensure that millions of people can continue to be fed. An estimated 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet today, the FAO authors added. A billion more could be added if a shock to the economic system reduced their income by a third.

In the event of disruptions to the food system, such as extreme weather events or animal and plant diseases, there is also the threat of rising prices. Developing and emerging countries are particularly at risk. “The pandemic highlighted both the resilience and the weakness of our agrifood systems,” said FAO director general Qu Dongyu. Even before Covid-19, the UN agency felt the world was not on track to meet its pledge to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

The experts recommended that countries expand the network of their food systems so that they can better compensate for setbacks. They should also support small and medium-sized enterprises in the food chain. According to the data, 11 billion tons of food is produced annually in the global food system, that is in the production, storage, processing, transport, distribution and consumption of food. According to the FAO, billions of people are directly or indirectly employed in the sector.

Meanwhile, the Global Nutrition Report (GNR), a yearly survey and analysis of the latest data on nutrition and related health issues, said nearly half of the world’s population suffers from poor nutrition linked to too much or not enough food with wide-ranging impacts on health and the planet. The report found that 48pc of people currently eat either too little or too much, resulting in them being overweight, obese or underweight. At current rates, the report finds, the world will fail to meet eight out of nine nutrition targets set by the World Health Organization for 2025. These include reducing child wasting (when children are too thin for their height) and child stunting (when they are too short for their age), and also adult obesity. The report estimates nearly 150 million children under five years old are stunted, more than 45 million are wasted and nearly 40 million are overweight. It also finds more than 40pc of adults (2.2 billion people) are now overweight or obese. “Avoidable deaths due to poor diets have grown by 15pc since 2010 and poor diets are now responsible for a quarter of all adult deaths,” it noted.

The findings show that diets have not improved over the last ten years and are now a major threat to people’s health and to the planet. It finds people are failing to consume enough health-promoting foods like fruits and vegetables, particularly in lower-income countries. Higher-income countries had the highest intake of foods with harmful health impacts like red meat, dairy and sugary drinks. Consumption of harmful foods is on the rise, the report found, with red and processed meat already at almost five times the maximum recommendation of one serving a week. The report notes that current global nutrition targets do not mention diet, with the exception of limiting sodium, and recommends new, more holistic targets. In line with other estimates, the GNR calculated global food demand generated some 35pc of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. The report called for urgent funding to improve nutrition across the globe, particularly as Covid-19 pushed an estimated additional 155 million people into extreme poverty. The GNR estimates the nutrition spending will need to increase by nearly $4 billion annually until 2030 to meet stunting, wasting, maternal anaemia and breastfeeding targets alone.

Undoubtedly, rising prices of food are the biggest challenge for the people and government of Pakistan. The country cannot afford food imports for long. It has to upgrade its agriculture sector to meet the growing needs of its people and save them from possible supply chain disruptions.