Scaling up agricultural output by at least 50 per cent through the year 2050 is an overarching challenge for Pakistan’s agriculture sector, given the country’s ever-growing population.
The challenge is indeed more complex and significant as the food crisis has already surfaced, as evident from the fact that 42pc of children in Pakistan are currently victims of stunting due to worsening malnutrition, and 43pc of the country’s population faces food insecurity. The Global Hunger Index 2022 ranked Pakistan 99th (out of 121 countries) and placed it under the category of “severely affected countries”.
While boosting agricultural output is, of course, fundamental, it alone will not be sufficient to address the challenge, given the country’s limited land resources, uncertain water availability due to climate change, and ongoing urbanisation encroachment on fertile agricultural lands.
Under the given circumstances, it is equally important to reduce food loss and waste (FLW) at various stages along the food value chain, from farm to fork.
The scattered regulatory approach to reduce food loss and waste can’t yield tangible results
Food loss and food waste are quite distinct concepts. The first one primarily refers to the unintentional losses of agricultural commodities (grains, oilseeds, cereals, fruits, and vegetables) during crop production, harvest, storage, transportation, and agro-processing stages of the value chain; while the latter represents the waste of food (consciously) at retail and consumer levels (stores, restaurants, marriage halls, houses, etc).
Statistics may vary, but according to a conservative estimate, food loss and waste (at farm and post-farm gate) in Pakistan stands at around 22pc in durable crops; and over 30pc, in fruits and vegetables.
Such a huge FLW represents a missed opportunity to improve the country’s food security and has enormous economic, social, and environmental implications. Additionally, it also causes the squandering of precious resources (land, energy, labour, water, fertiliser, pesticide) used to produce lost/wasted food.
Reduction in food loss and food waste is imperative, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 12 target 12.3), adopted in 2015, which calls for member countries to reduce FLW significantly by 2030.
However, food losses that occur at the early and middle stages of the food value chain and are primarily associated with farmers, stockists, and processors must get more attention in low-income agrarian economies like Pakistan, where these losses are far greater than food wasted at the consumer level.
Since 2015, many countries have implemented policies and made concerted efforts to meet the reduction targets outlined in the SDGs. There is a consensus that Pakistan needs to minimise FLW to address interrelated sustainability challenges such as scarcity of natural resources, climate change, and food security. Certainly, reducing FLW is a resource-efficient way to increase food availability, combat hunger, and above all, decrease food prices.
Pakistan’s National Food Security Policy (2018) highlights FLW briefly (on less than one page) under a minor subheading. The suggested policy measures mentioned therein are generic and abstract, emphasising improvement in data collection, capacity building, awareness raising, and stakeholder incentives to improve their infrastructure and facilities. But these measures lack specificity in their objectives and implementation.
This is why stakeholders are unaware of the government’s specific policy objectives, strategy, and institutional and regulatory framework, except for a regulation issued by the Punjab Food Authority —”Disposal of Excess Food Regulation 2019”, which aims at donating leftover food from restaurants and marriage halls to those in need. Unfortunately, such a scattered regulatory approach can’t yield tangible results.
Reduction in FLW is a complex and multi-dimensional challenge. In Pakistan, high FLW is primarily due to financial, technical, and managerial limitations and constraints in farming, harvesting, packaging, transportation, storage, and agro-processing practices.
Poor knowledge and skills of farmers and stockists (of agricultural commodities) present another critical challenge, and to top it all, regulating their farming and storage practices is difficult due to their vast numbers (in millions) and widespread distribution across the country.
Furthermore, to effectively reduce FLW, it is imperative to change individual behaviour, which necessitates government interventions, including education, training, and awareness.
Additionally, Pakistan’s economy is largely dominated by the informal sector, which remains largely undocumented. As a result, the country faces a significant dearth of policy data, which is crucial for exploring different policy options, setting targets, and developing a framework to measure and monitor FLW.
These multifaceted challenges and the severity and scale of the FLW necessitate a full-fledged policy comprised of issue-specific and goal-oriented policy measures. Such a policy document — a stepping stone for large-scale improvement — would definitely demonstrate the government’s commitment, but this alone is not sufficient.
The government should adopt some non-intrusive measures, such as capacity building of value chain players, certifications and accreditations, and financial and non-financial incentives, to minimise the use of authoritative approaches.
Khalid Wattoo is a farmer and a development professional Rahema Hasan is a political economist and graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 5th, 2023