Price hike and nutrition

15 Feb 2020


The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.
The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.

CLIMATE change is a threat multiplier for large-scale malnutrition and stunting in Pakistan. It is only now that the linkages between climate change and malnutrition have begun to become clearer, even if the experts have long highlighted the climate threats to agriculture and food security. Scaling Up Nutrition, a global multi-donor initiative that has supported more than 30 countries develop their national nutrition strategies, for example, has seldom referred to climate-triggered disasters such as droughts, floods, or heatwaves that result in crop failures and food insecurity.

However, some of the more recent initiatives have mentioned climate change, temperature increase and the growing seasonal variability of precipitation. The experts have just begun to weave these linkages into policy initiatives. It is an opportune time for Pakistan’s envisioned nutrition strategy to adopt deeper, structural and well-integrated approaches.

As the global temperatures continue to increase, food insecurity has become a serious challenge for Pakistan. Several crops have already fallen victim to the changing monsoon and recorded reduced yields. The changes in rainfall patterns, increased frequency of droughts, heatwaves, and untimely rains have recently damaged standing wheat, cotton and several vegetable crops. These triggers increase food prices and serve as barriers to food availability, access, and affordability. Almost half of the country’s population is now spending about 60 per cent of its income on food items, but their nutritional intake is constantly threatened. Growing food insecurity coupled with poor governance has become politically volatile at the one degree Celsius change that has occurred in the last 50 years or so. Imagine if the Paris Agreement fails and the temperatures continue to increase to 2°C or more during the coming years.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that increased carbon dioxide levels lower the nutrition value of crops such as wheat and rice, disturbing in particular the concentration levels of protein, zinc and iron. High levels of CO2 disrupt plants’ internal chemistry, altering the quantity of protein and other vitamins they can produce internally. Currently, 76 per cent of the world’s population derives most of its daily protein from plants. Climate change will catalyse a global food crisis with millions of people unable to get the necessary nutrients from the food they rely on. This will affect everyone particularly 354m children mostly in South Asia, including Pakistan.

As food prices climb, poor consumers spend less on nutrition and the number of underweight children rises.

According to the IPCC, wheat as well as grains and legumes grown at atmospheric carbon dioxide levels between 546 and 586 PPMs (this is roughly equivalent to 2°C temperature increase) has 6pc to 13pc less protein, 4pc to 7pc less zinc and 5pc to 8pc less iron. The increased carbon emissions are likely to cause 200m people to be zinc deficit by 2050. According to National Nutrition Survey 2018, or NNS, Pakistani children are already protein, zinc and iron deficient. The challenge is severe and growing: 18 countries including Pakistan could lose over 5pc of their dietary protein by 2050 from wheat and rice alone.

The NNS has shown that the country is facing a triple burden of malnutrition — undernutrition, over-nutrition and mal-nutrient deficiencies, all particularly affecting women and children. About 53pc of under-five children are anaemic while the prevalence of vitamin A and D deficiencies is 52pc and 63pc respectively. The deficiencies in women of reproductive age include vitamins D, A, calcium and zinc. The nutrition survey has estimated that about 79m people are food insecure and with business as usual, this number will increase to 114m (which will be more than the total present population of Punjab) by 2047 when Pakistan will have 350m people and be celebrating its centenary.

As food prices climb, poor consumers spend less on nutrition and the number of underweight children rises, pushing more and more of them into the deep ditch of malnutrition and stunting. Malnutrition affects half the children and mothers in Pakistan, resulting in low productivity and low national development. It is a triple jeopardy for people as they are a) overly vulnerable to climate-induced stresses and disasters, b) increasingly becoming hostage to price shocks with eroded purchasing power for nutritious foods, and c) unable to be fully productive and engaged in national development in a rapidly contracting economy that has one of the lowest growth rates in the region. According to the 2015 Global Nutrition Report, healthcare expenditures caused by poor nutrition are 16 times higher than the cost of preventing malnutrition. Yet, the government lags behind in adopting holistic multisectoral approaches, strengthening climate and nutrition smart agriculture, and increasing resilience to climate change.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s maiden speech raised a great deal of optimism but the prevailing ecosystem of inaction has created an illusion of interventions that need his personal attention, supported by five strong legislative measures, proposed below:

First, nothing is more effective than breastfeeding for addressing malnutrition. Withdraw and strongly regulate the concessions granted to private firms that promote baby milk formulas.

Second, stop export of perishable fruit, vegetables, cereal and meat, even if there are strong foreign exchange and balance-of-trade pressures in CPEC and with other trading partners. These are critical sources of nutrition for the impoverished population.

Third, promote non-timber forest products and services within your 10 billion-tree mission. They are a major source of micronutrients and nutrition particularly for the rural poor. Trees alone are not enough.

Fourth, enable premier research institutions to develop drought-, flood-, and heatwave-resilient varieties through regional and international collaboration to develop strands that are higher in essential micronutrients and can tolerate temperature increases.

And lastly, raise Rs 500bn for the next five years for addressing malnutrition. You are a successful fundraiser. Go back to your maiden speech and pick up the threads from there. Nothing could be more pro-poor than a national climate and nutrition agenda.

The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.

Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2020