FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 9

Food insecurity in Pakistan

Food security has become a top priority item both at the national and international levels. Relevant in this context is the global report on food crises-2021, which predicts that food shortages will become more widespread in the coming years.

According to a report by the World Food Programme, 41 million people around the world are on the verge of famine. Wars and conflicts in various parts of the world – such as the one in Yemen right now – and extreme weather conditions caused by climate change pose a serious threat to food security for an increasing number of people. The situation has further worsened in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic which decimated the world economy and adversely affected agricultural production and food supply chains. To be precise, food insecurity does not just mean scarcity of food but also lack of sufficient funds to get access to food.

During the last few years, food security has become a serious issue in Pakistan. With double-digit food price inflation and declining income, more and more people have become food insecure since the pandemic hit. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), around 43 percent Pakistanis are food insecure, while 18 percent suffer from acute food insecurity. The WFP says that a majority of Pakistanis are incapable of affording healthy, nutritious food.

According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI), with a score of 24.7, Pakistan’s level of hunger is categorised as “serious”. Pakistan ranked 92nd out of 116 nations in the index, while Bangladesh and Sri Lanka outperformed Pakistan with a ranking of 76 and 65 respectively. The index is based on four indicators, including undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and under-five mortality rate. While 37.6 percent of Pakistani children are stunted, the proportion of the undernourished population is 12.9 percent, and the prevalence of wasting in under-five children is 7.1 percent.

The report says that as the year 2030 draws closer, achievement of the world’s commitment to zero hunger is not possible. Further, the world as a whole — and 47 countries in particular — will fail to achieve even low hunger by 2030. The challenge that Pakistan faces in combating food insecurity is two-fold: increasing food availability while also ensuring that people have access to healthy and safe meals.

Our economic and financial policies have failed to achieve the twin goal. A rapid rise in the population coupled with growing social and economic inequities has created a serious situation. Pakistan produced excess wheat and other food products in the 1980s and 1990s. We could export wheat and were major exporters of basmati rice. And now we are importing these foods.

Pakistan’s current per capita caloric availability is 2,300 kilocalories per day; 20 years ago, it was 2,400. Current figures for Nepal and Bangladesh are 2,800 and 2,500, respectively. Our annual population growth rate is over two per cent, compared to 1.2pc in the region. Continued rapid growth means huge additional pressure on food in an already over-extended and vulnerable agricultural system.

Not too long ago, Bangladesh was overwhelmed by food insecurity and overpopulation. But firm political commitment to support human development changed everything. Family planning services took centre-stage in their development plans as a result of which rapid population growth was brought under control.

Experts say that Pakistan also needs to focus more on human development and population planning. Accelerated efforts to ensure access to reproductive health services, especially family planning, are urgently required. Rural health services, which have not grown significantly in the past 20 years, need to be upgraded through the expansion of the Lady Health Workers network. At the same time, the government should come out openly in support of public opinion change that favours birth spacing. This will require a system of effective public health messaging through the media.

Experience shows that the long-term solution to regulating fertility rates lies in prioritising the reproductive health and rights of women. It has been found that both civil society and religious leaders believe that this is a national issue of utmost importance and must be attended to on an urgent basis. But the government has to take the lead and set the tone through clear-cut policy decisions followed by rigorous implementation. The problem of food security is multi-dimensional and calls for an integrated approach by all relevant departments of the government. To avoid future food crises, the government must promote crop diversification, water management, and climate-smart farming to decrease the devastating effects of natural disasters on food security. Prioritising agricultural value addition and preserving subsidies for essential crops are also critical for the country’s food security. Pakistan is an agricultural country and it has the potential to feed not only its own population but also export food grains to the Middle East.