FeaturedNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 21

Growing food fears

The number of people facing food insecurity in Pakistan is increasing. A recent survey shows 16.4 out of every 100 households reported moderate to severe food insecurity. It not only belies the government’s tall claims of economic recovery but also identifies a serious food crisis, which is worsening with the passage of every year.

According to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement, Balochistan witnessed the highest level of moderate or severe food insecurity at 29.84pc, followed by Sindh 18.45pc, Punjab 15.16pc and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 12.75pc. It is shocking to note that Punjab, the food basket of the country, lags behind Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. On the other hand, the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa should be lauded for decreasing food insecurity in the province.

The official survey was conducted in 2019-20, when the country had not been locked down to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, otherwise, the findings could have been grimmer. The number of food insecure people is slightly higher than the 15.9pc a year before. The survey not only reflects the impacts of job losses, income reduction and IMF-dictated economic policies on the lives of the poor, but also the effects of climate change on agriculture and different food security levels in different regions.

It is a matter of concern that almost 30pc of Balochistan’s population is facing food insecurity. The situation might have worsened after lockdown restrictions in the province. The survey, conducted by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), covered 176,790 households across rural and urban communities for collecting information on a range of social sector issues — education, health and food insecurity by facilities and services. The highest level of moderate or severe food insecurity was recorded at 48.8pc in Barkhan and the lowest at 4.59pc in Gwadar, Balochistan. In Sindh, the highest level was recorded at 34.04pc in Kashmore and the lowest at 7.66pc in Khairpur. In Punjab, the highest level of moderate or severe food insecurity was noted at 28.81pc in Kasur and the lowest at 4.18pc in Okara. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the highest level stood at 32.43pc in Tank and the lowest at 3.94pc in Shangla.

Undoubtedly, rising prices of food are the biggest challenge for the people and the government. Pakistan had to import wheat and sugar last year to check their prices. However, global food prices are also rising. They extended their rally to the highest in almost a decade, according to the United Nations, heightening concerns over bulging grocery bills as economies struggle to exit the Covid-19 crisis. A United Nations gauge of world food costs climbed for a 12th straight month in May, its longest stretch in a decade. The continued advance risks accelerating broader inflation, complicating central banks efforts to provide more stimulus. Drought in key Brazilian growing regions is crippling crops from corn to coffee, and vegetable oil production growth has slowed in Southeast Asia. That’s boosting costs for livestock producers and risks further straining global grain stockpiles that have been depleted by soaring Chinese demand.

The surge has stirred memories of 2008 and 2011, when price spikes led to food riots in more than 30 nations. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the prolonged gains across the staple commodities are trickling through to store shelves, with countries from Kenya to Mexico reporting higher food costs. The pain could be particularly pronounced in some of the poorest import-dependent nations, which have limited purchasing power and social safety nets as they grapple with the pandemic, it said.

The UN’s index is treading at its highest since September 2011, with May’s gain of 4.8pc being the biggest in more than 10 years. All five components of the index rose during the month, with the advance led by pricier vegetable oils, grain and sugar. The world’s hunger problem has already reached its worst in years as the pandemic exacerbates food inequalities, compounding extreme weather and political conflicts. There were other elements that exacerbated skyrocketing food costs a decade ago. For example, oil prices neared $150 a barrel — double current levels — and there was a wave of trade restrictions by major grain shippers. Costs for rice, one of the world’s food staples, have remained relatively subdued during the current agricultural price surge. Gains in the past year have been fueled by China’s “unpredictably huge” purchases of foreign grain, and world reserves could hold relatively flat in the coming season. Summer weather across the Northern Hemisphere will be crucial to determine if US and European harvests can make up for crop shortfalls elsewhere.

It is clear that Pakistan has to upgrade its agriculture sector to meet the growing needs of its people. The Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement survey shows that intermittent periods of drought and heavy rains over several years have not only pushed up poverty levels in various regions of the country but also have increased the number of people facing food insecurity. Food insecurity is not only about food shortages in the market but also signifies lack of sufficient money to buy food.

We have substantial evidence that food insecurity hits women and children harder than their adult male relatives. People living in poorer districts and areas also face greater food insecurity for longer periods than others. Pakistan will not only have to improve its economic growth and agricultural performance to provide jobs to its people and enable them to buy nutritious food but also bridge the widening regional economic and development gap, which has increased inequalities in the access to basic needs of life.