The food challenge

Published November 30, 2020
The fear of hunger while battling the second, and deadlier, wave of Covid-19 is misplaced, asserts the hierarchy of federal and provincial food/agriculture departments. — File photo
The fear of hunger while battling the second, and deadlier, wave of Covid-19 is misplaced, asserts the hierarchy of federal and provincial food/agriculture departments. — File photo

The fear of hunger while battling the second, and deadlier, wave of Covid-19 is misplaced, asserts the hierarchy of federal and provincial food/agriculture departments. They project sufficient production, stocks and availability of essential food items at affordable rates over the next four months of winter.

Deflecting questions about the recent spike in prices and weak links in the supply chain of meat, grains and veggies, they expressed confidence in the systems in place to thwart any threat to food security. Without convincingly substantiating their claims with verifiable data, they expressed optimism that was rooted primarily in the country’s performance on this count during the first wave of Covid-19. No major disruptions in the supply of essentials were observed during the lockdown period, though prices shot up in the subsequent months, necessitating the import of wheat and sugar.

“We are better prepared this time around to intervene effectively to ensure the availability of essentials at affordable rates for people all across the country,” a top official of the food security department told Dawn over the phone from Islamabad. “The food security dashboard will be launched in the first week of January next year. A mechanism has already been defined using technology to plug in district-wise data on the availability and pricing of basic food items to guarantee that no one sleeps hungry in Pakistan,” he added.

Federal and provincial authorities expect no major disruptions in the supply of essential food items

The provincial food and agriculture departments supported the federal government’s position on food provisions. They, however, told Dawn the work has yet to be initiated in their domains on the proposed food security dashboard.

With a sharp spike in coronavirus cases, the federal and provincial governments are reintroducing restrictions to contain the spread of the pandemic. The federal government, though, has categorically ruled out the possibility of a complete lockdown. Speaking at an event of the World Economic Forum, Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly said, “With the high level of poverty and lessons learnt from the first wave, we are aware that Pakistan can’t afford a lockdown of businesses and factories that employ people.”

Responding to Dawn’s queries, Food Security Secretary Ghufran Memon said in a written response that the country covers 90 per cent of its nutritional needs indigenously and depends on imports for pulses and edible oil. He attributed the dip in wheat production to climate change as Pakistan ended up harvesting 25.2 million tonnes of wheat against the national requirement of 27.3m tonnes. To cover the shortfall, “wheat import is in progress by the public and private sectors”.

He said rice production increased by 11.3pc. About 8.1m tonnes of wheat was harvested against local demand of 3.4m tonnes, leaving sizeable stocks for exports. Sugar cane production increased by 13.9pc to touch the harvest level of 75.6m tonnes. The maize crop of 7.8m tonnes meets the local demand. He said heavy rains damaged onion and tomato crops in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but the next crop is good and would soon be harvested. The private sector has confirmed to the government that imported edible oil and pulses will remain available in sufficient quantities. Other essential food items like poultry, meat, eggs and milk will also remain available sufficiently. “We foresee no shortages during the second wave of Covid-19 and the prime minister is personally monitoring prices and supplies.”

Balochistan Food Minister Sardar Abdul Rehman Khetran told Dawn over the phone from Quetta that the administration is mindful of the needs of the population and has arranged for logistics to ensure supplies of staples at affordable prices in winter.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Secretary Food and Livestock Israr Khan spoke about reliance on Punjab for the shortfall in the production of wheat in the province. “The decision of the farming community of the province regarding the choice of the crop depends on the comparative advantage and competitiveness. They grow what earns them better. We have to strategize accordingly. Yes, the province needs to buy staples from other provinces and Passco, but it supplies multiple fruits that are sold all around Pakistan. It also produces premium tobacco for the industry.”

He said his department is working on a multi-pronged strategy that includes changing dietary habits of the local population and introducing maize and rice in the regular cuisine. “We have steady reserves and foresee no food shortages in the foreseeable future.”

Punjab Agriculture Minister Syed Hussain Jahania Gardezi was also confident about the arrangements in place to ensure sufficient supplies of essential food items across the province. “Punjab is food secure. We primarily deal with food crop production but as a member of the provincial team, I can assure you that we are very closely monitoring the demand-and-supply situation and will act instantly to provide relief if need arises.”

Sindh Agriculture Minister Muhammad Ismail Rahu told Dawn that the fresh crop of onion and tomato will be in the market soon. “There are sufficient stocks of wheat available in the province. We don’t expect any disruption in the supply of food crops and expect relative stability in prices in the period ahead. No, we have not yet been approached by the federal government for district-wise crop production data,” he said over the phone.

The biggest risk to food security is of affordability, not availability. “What does it matter if shop racks are bursting with supplies? To cater to nutritional needs of the poor, it must also be affordable for those on the lowest rung,” commented a watcher.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 30th, 2020

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