FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 51

Growing food insecurity in Pakistan

Although Pakistan is an agricultural country, its food security situation has been worsening over the years. Various international organisations, including FAO and the World Bank, have repeated drawn attention to this issue.

The World Bank in its latest report “Food Security Update”, warned of growing food shortages in the country in the wake of unprecedented monsoon rains during the summer months this year and increased melting of glaciers that caused widespread flash flooding and landslides in Pakistan.

As we all know, higher rainfall than the 30-year average caused severe damage to agricultural lands, livestock, forests, and agricultural infrastructure. Rural communities, which rely on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods, were among the hardest hit. According to a report by the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), heavy damage to transport infrastructure reduced food access in affected areas and increased food prices. ACTED teams which visited communities in Balochistan and Sindh found that people had no access to food and, in some cases, no access to local markets. In addition, the OCHA Humanitarian Advisory Team in Pakistan reported that 73 per cent of households in areas with flooding had inadequate resources to buy food.

A survey by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that over 1.2 million hectares of agricultural land in Sindh had been damaged, which will have catastrophic impacts on livelihoods and food production in the region. Another study using remote sensing technology estimates production losses in the Sindh region of 193 tons of rice (80 per cent of total production), 3.1 million bales of cotton (88 per cent of total production), and 10.5 million tons of sugarcane (66 per cent of total production).

According to the WB report, the large-scale flooding has exacerbated previously high levels of food insecurity in Pakistan, where it is estimated that 4.66 million people faced crisis conditions or worse from October 2021 to March and April 2022. Pakistan is ranked ninth out of the 10 countries and territories with the most people in crisis or worse or equivalent in 2021. Multiple shocks including high food and fuel prices, drought, livestock diseases, and widespread loss of income-generating opportunities due to the impacts of Covid-19 had increased food insecurity in Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh provinces.

Notable in this context is a World Bank report last year which said that Pakistan’s agriculture sector works much below its potential and needs to focus more on productivity improvements as well as high value production. The bank in its report “enhancing smallholder incomes by linking to high value markets in Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces” stated that Pakistan’s agriculture is moribund. The report said the country’s agriculture sector is operating below the potential yields that the well-irrigated and fertile soils of the Indus irrigation system could produce when compared to productivity levels in similar regional and global farming systems.

A major problem of Pakistan’s farming sector is that it is highly fragmented. Small plot sizes and livestock holdings are a big impediment to creating linkages to markets. According to the latest agriculture census, of the 8.3 million farms in Pakistan, 89 percent were less than 5 ha, accounting for 48 percent of the national farm area. The livestock sub-sector represents 60 percent of Pakistan’s agricultural GDP, but smallholders dominate the industry.

Another complicating factor is that the vast bulk of agriculture produce passes through traditional marketing systems onto consumers. This carries substantial costs, especially for smallholder producers, where supply chains contain multiple intermediaries including village-level consolidators, transporters, wholesalers and commission agents in state-regulated government markets, and retailers. The long chain of intermediaries inflates the prices paid by the end consumers. Farmers are often in unfavourable bargaining positions as their holding capacity and market information are low. They are unaware of quality standards, if any, and traders take advantage of their ignorance of market conditions.

The World Bank has recommended that market opportunities should be identified in order to frame policies to favour the farmers. The report also underlined the need for defining the exclusive benefits that cooperation will generate for value chain players. Collective action is most successful when farmers perceive that the benefits from group activities outweigh any additional costs.

Experts have stressed that interlinking financial and technical support should be organized to help small-scale producers and agribusinesses access financial, managerial and business services. It is equally important to provide technical assistance to help smallholders meet quality standards and implement efficient agronomic techniques.

In the coming years, the frequency and intensity of extreme climate events is projected to increase, seriously endangering food security and posing disaster risks, particularly for vulnerable poor and minority groups. Unprecedented rains and floods will result in declines in many key food and cash crops, including cotton, wheat, sugarcane, maize, and rice. This stresses the need for advance planning by the government to reduce the possibility of food insecurity to the minimum.