AS major political parties vie to form the next government, their challenges are set to extend far beyond the corridors of power. Apart from a complex array of political and economic issues that need to be addressed, the country’s critical state of food security stands out as a pressing concern that demands urgent attention from policymakers.

The World Food Programme highlights a concerning reality: an average Pakistani household allocates a significant portion, almost half (50.8 per cent) of its monthly income, to food expenses.

This financial burden becomes even more challenging as households juggle essential costs such as utility bills, rent, transport, health, and education. The past few years have witnessed currency depreciation, a decline in purchasing power, and an overall surge in the cost of living in Pakistan, posing a formidable challenge for individuals striving to strike a balance among these crucial yet competing expenditures.

Given that utility bills, rent and transportation costs are essentially non-negotiable, many individuals reluctantly compromise on flexible expenditures, particularly those related to health, education and, most critically, food.

Addressing food insecurity requires a nuanced, multidimensional strategy that goes beyond increasing agricultural productivity

In the face of promises of economic revival presented by political parties, the expectations of the people extend beyond general economic prosperity. The populace anticipates that the next government will ensure a sustained availability of affordable food.

Augment people’s expectations with the phrase “to meet their nutritional requirements for healthy living”, and all four pillars of food security get covered in people’s expectations. They want to be food secure.

This expectation aligns with a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution under Article 38, which mandates the state to provide basic necessities of life, including food, for citizens unable to earn their livelihood.

For most Pakistanis, however, a balanced and healthy diet remains an elusive dream and a luxury.

This unfortunate reality is accentuated by data from Unicef’s National Nutrition Survey 2018, which revealed that one in three people (36.9pc) in Pakistan faced some level of food insecurity, and one in five (20.5pc) experienced undernourishment. Alarmingly, two out of five (40pc) children under the age of five were found to be stunted (low height for age).

Food insecurity on the rise

The severity of the food insecurity challenge is further underscored by a more recent report from the FAO, State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023, which indicates that 42.3pc of the population faced moderate to severe food insecurity during 2020-2022, a stark increase from 14.1pc during 2014-2016.

This threefold surge, while partly attributed to the challenges posed by Covid and super floods in 2022, highlights the vulnerability of a significant portion of the population to any unforeseen shocks.

Adding to the gravity of the situation, the above report estimated the cost of maintaining a healthy diet in Pakistan at $3.89 per person per day, suggesting a staggering 82.8pc of the population was unable to afford such a diet.

It is crucial to recognise that these figures are based on 2021 data. The subsequent 35pc depreciation of the dollar and the global surge in commodity prices further accentuate the unattainability of a nutritious diet for most Pakistanis. Therefore, a healthy and balanced diet is a far-fetched dream for many citizens.

Moreover, the Global Hunger Index 2023 categorises the level of hunger in Pakistan as “serious”, despite some improvement in certain indicators. Considering this dire situation in the context of Article 38 of the Constitution, the responsibility of the upcoming federal and provincial governments in addressing food insecurity becomes paramount.

Beyond the moral imperative, there are tangible economic consequences associated with malnutrition and food insecurity. Studies, such as one conducted by the World Food Programme and the government of Pakistan in 2016, estimated that the economic consequences of undernutrition amounted to around $7.6 billion annually.

This calculation encompasses factors such as the lost future workforce due to child mortality, reduced future adult productivity from childhood stunting, anaemia, iodine deficiency, and the costs associated with health care services due to micronutrient deficiencies, suboptimal breastfeeding, and low birth weight.

Recalculate the above cost considering the three-fold increase in food insecurity in Pakistan between 2014-16 and 2020-2022. It becomes evident that no political party or parties aspiring for sustainable economic revival after taking the helm can afford to ignore the pressing issue of food security for its people.

Comprehensive approach needed

However, many decision-makers simply tend to deny that Pakistan faces any food security issue by arguing that a country that is a major exporter of rice, oranges and mangoes and among the largest producers of dairy milk cannot be food insecure. Others, while acknowledging the issue, believe that food insecurity can be tackled merely through enhanced agricultural productivity.

In fact, food security is a nuanced, multidimensional concept requiring a comprehensive approach covering not just the quantity of food but also socio-economic accessibility to food and its nutritional quality. Focusing solely on boosting productivity through inefficient subsidies and minimum support price mechanisms for certain crops (that often distort the market) may overlook systemic issues like distribution inefficiencies and socio-economic disparities.

To improve food availability, we would have to graduate from conventional agriculture to climate-smart agriculture. The upcoming government should redirect the existing agricultural subsidies to agricultural research and development, especially in areas of precision and digitalised agriculture and the use of biotech innovations.

Simultaneously, targeted interventions in rural infrastructure are crucial. Improving transportation networks and storage facilities can mitigate post-harvest losses, ensuring that the increased agricultural output effectively reaches consumers.

Another prerequisite for enhanced yield is fostering coordination and collaboration among agricultural universities, agricultural research institutes, agricultural extension service departments, and agro-based industries. Currently, all four of them are working in their respective silos, which is not very helpful for agricultural transformation.

Improved economic access to food involves creating livelihood opportunities, improving the consumable income of citizens and addressing socio-economic disparities, where implementing social safety nets like conditional and unconditional cash transfers through the Benazir Income Support Programme can alleviate financial constraints for vulnerable populations, enhancing their ability to purchase nutritious food. Additionally, administrative measures to curb hoarding, smuggling and inefficient markets can contribute to more equitable distribution.

Food utilisation can be improved through provisions like clean drinking water, sanitation facilities, improved health services, education and awareness campaigns emphasising the importance of balanced diets and proper nutrition. A national nutrition policy framework is essential to promote the use of a healthy diet. Likewise, the National Food Security Policy needs to be revisited to address the growing impacts of climate change on food security.

To effectively address the food security challenges in Pakistan, it is imperative that the federal and provincial governments work together in a coordinated and smooth manner. It is the state’s collective responsibility to take care of citizens’ food security and cannot be discharged without the whole-of-government and the whole-of-policy approach.

All political parties must recognise the severity of the food insecurity situation and come up with a clear plan of action to address it.

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri heads Sustainable Development Policy Institute. His X (Twitter) handle is @abidsuleri

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2024

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