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Faltering food security

September 26, 2011

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Many countries in the world do not have the kind of population pressure Pakistan is facing, and it only adds to the urgency of developing such policies and tools. - File photo

THE Global Hunger Index 2010, developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute, fires another warning shot at Pakistan. Ranking it at position number 19, the index classifies it as a state that faces “serious hunger” threat.

Between 20 and 30 countries face “alarming” situation, with 30 and beyond bracketed as “extremely alarming.” Pakistan has escaped the “alarming” category by just one point. The ranking must ring alarm bells in the power corridors.

Though we, as a nation, seldom accept such international rankings, but one must not forget that other world bodies – the Food and Agriculture Organisation, World Food Programme and World Bank – have also delivered such periodic warnings, which the country has been ignoring at its own social and economic perils.

Both international and domestic realities substantiate the warning. The Global Food Price Index jumped from 120 in 2006 to 220 in 2008 – an increase of 83 per cent, and 2008 witnessed food riots in a number of countries. The year also pushed a staggering 30 million people below the poverty line worldwide. Between 2008 and 2010, the index dropped from 220 to 160 – a drop of 27 per cent. It started rising again last year and rose to 240 in 2011, triggering food riots in many countries again.

On the domestic front, as per the Planning Commission’s calculations, the monthly cost of the minimum caloric intake that an average citizen should be consuming has gone up by 74 per cent – from Rs960 in 2007-2008 to Rs1,670 by June 2011. The price of essentials like flour has risen by 67 per cent, milk 85 per cent and meat 103 per cent. In 2011, Pakistan would surely be worse off for the three factors: rains and flood creating social and economic problems, their impact on agriculture, and government’s inability to deal with its (social, economic and agricultural) consequences.

Instead of planning food security, Pakistan seems to be regressing on the issue. It has already earned the distinction of being the only country on the globe that does not have any federal body dealing with food issues. It has dissolved the Pakistan Oil Development Board (PODB) at the federal level, without creating any provincial alternatives while its edible oil bill is rising.

August figures for food import bill should serve as an eye opener. During the month the food import bill increased by 23.7 per cent – from $355.6 million in August 2010 to $440 million in August 2011.

The country needs to develop a comprehensive policy for dealing with food security issues and an elaborate implementation mechanism at every tier of the governance – federal as well as provincial. It is because the food security is not an exclusively agriculture phenomenon. Other policies (monetary and fiscal) play an equally important role, and the problem cannot be comprehensively addressed without dealing with these two dimensions.

Yet, considering the FAO definition of food security – “it exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” — one has to concentrate on the supply side to ensure security, especially in free markets operating on demand-supply mechanism. Food security thus is directly linked to agriculture (food production, and ensuring availability of sufficient per capita food).

Luckily, natural endowments give Pakistan many options for ensuring food for all its citzens if it can improve its policy and managerial skills. It can go for horizontal increase in cultivable land. It can opt for vertical increase in production of entire food chain. Higher production in agriculture can give it a breathing space on fiscal and monetary front.

Unfortunately, it has not exercised any of these options during the last few decades. For example, its cropping area has been stuck at 550 million acres for the last many decades. It can easily expand the area by 30 per cent if it can conserve the available water. It can increase cultivable area by at least 100 per cent, if it can bring vast tracks of Balochistan under irrigation.

Another example for horizontal growth option is culturable waste that can be brought under cultivation. Currently, it stands at enormous 20 million acres. In Punjab alone, it is around four million acres. In Indian east Punjab, the culturable waste is mere 67,000 acres.

Potential for vertical growth is equally massive. Agriculture experts agree that research (seed sector) can increase production by 25 to 50 per cent from currently available land. The cultural practices (extension service) can increase yield by around 35 per cent – 25 per cent through balanced use of fertiliser and 10 per cent through better plant protection or use of pesticides.

Water alone, they maintain, can increase production by 50 per cent. It only goes to prove that the country can increase its food production by 100 per cent by simply improving its management practices. The post-harvest losses for all horticulture produces stand at 30 to 40 per cent. If this loss can be contained by building cool chain on strategic points in the country, they can correspondingly add to avaibility.

The country must try to evolve a comprehensive policy and better managerial practices. Its stagnant agriculture production and land use have become lethal when taken in the context of ever increasing population.

Pakistan needs 500,000 tons additional wheat every year to feed its ever-increasing population. Many countries in the world do not have the kind of population pressure Pakistan is facing, and it only adds to the urgency of developing such policies and tools.