Analysis: Focus on food security

Updated May 15 2014

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- File Photo

Food first emerged as a political issue with the slogan of ‘roti, kapra aur makan’ in the late 1960s and the term ‘food security’ came into currency with the donor invasion in the 1980s. The subject has remained alive, thanks to recurring food crises that afflict the country from time to time, with the recent calamity in Thar drawing the attention of the courts as well.

The term ‘food security’ encompasses hunger as well as malnutrition. Pakistan suffers more from malnutrition than from hunger; although the incidence of hunger has been rising over the past two decades. The Thar crisis was more a product of malnutrition than hunger, with most mortalities occurring on account of pneumonia and malaria, caused by a prolonged dry winter. Long-standing poverty had caused the population, particularly children, to be suffering from malnutrition; which lowered their immunity levels.

Food insecurity exists if a family is unsure where the next meal is going to come from. This insecurity can be a product of two factors: availability and affordability. Availability is a product of food output and supply. Affordability is a product of low purchasing power, i.e. poverty. Thus, food insecurity can exist even with bumper crops and adequate supplies available in the market.

Pakistan is rich in terms of agricultural endowments and is, as such, not food deficit. For the country as a whole, food insecurity is largely a product of low purchasing power of a large section of the population. Income accrues from employment and the jobless growth phenomena over the last two decades has accentuated poverty and, by consequence, food insecurity. Policy distortions have tended to aggravate matters.

Crop failure can create a shortage, with food unavailable in the markets, even for those able to afford high prices. However, supply bottlenecks arising from poor storage and transportation networks and policy and market distortions can also cause localized food shortages and high prices. Wheat shortages occurred in February-March 1997 because the then interim government failed to place orders for wheat imports in November 1996; ostensibly, because it wanted to show a healthy foreign exchange reserve balance upon its exit. Wheat shortages in early 2008 occurred because the preceding government kept the procurement price of wheat low for a number of years in order to placate consumers; with the result that farmers switched to growing other more lucrative crops.

The danger to food security emanates from a variety of other sources, with the principal source being the neo-liberal philosophy of market supremacy; which maintains that markets can decide what and how much will be produced at what price. However, markets respond to purchasing power and not to need. If the poor cannot afford to buy food from the market, or to send their children to private schools or to obtain private medical facilities, it is considered just unfortunate.

With the progressive removal of regulatory barriers, farmers have tended to switch production from food crops to cash crops and crop farms have been converted to orchards, because cash crops fetch better prices in the world market. Lately, corporate farming is overtaking south Punjab, with tenants evicted by the hundreds of thousands on account of mechanization. The unfolding scenario is two-fold: a reduction in acreage and output of basic food items, coupled with a reduction in employment and income for the dispossessed poor.

The other looming threat is from the emergence of bio-fuels. As fossil fuel energy prices rise, cultivable land earlier devoted to growing food is now being converted in many countries crops for production of bio-fuels. Production of ethanol from sugar-cane is a prime example. Theoretically, food can disappear if farmers can fetch higher prices from producing crops for bio-fuels. Of course, food prices will rise to restore the output balance, but higher prices will render food unaffordable for the poor.

Food insecurity is not a natural phenomenon, but one of market and policy factors. Policymakers and the people at large have a political choice to make between the sanctity of markets and profits and food and economic security of the people.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2014