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Food for all


Pakistan is passing through one of the most difficult phases in its history. Plagued by unending political turmoil, growing inflation, stark socio-economic disparities, misgovernance, and natural disasters, the majority of the people spend a fair amount of time wondering where their next meal is coming from.

Food shortages are becoming a pervasive danger and food insecurity a constant worry. More than half of Pakistan’s population is food insecure, anaemic and malnourished. For those who are categorised as surviving on less than a dollar a day, a meal is just a naan or chapatti with a cup of tea, or maybe an onion or chillies. Even the middle class is unable to afford meat every day, and homemakers are hard-pressed to plan nutritious diets on severely constrained budgets.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) have the highest percentage of food insecure population at 67.7 per cent, followed by Balochistan at 61.2 per cent (in Dera Bugti it is as high as 81.2 per cent) and  Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at 56.2 per cent; Sindh and Punjab are somewhat better off (SDPI 2009). Pakistan is a signatory to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the UN, the first of which is to halve the degree of hunger in the country. Regrettably, Pakistan has failed in achieving the targets of MDG 1: hunger in Pakistan has increased, not decreased.

The UN defines food security as “All people at all times having physical and economic access to the basic food they need,” but today, for a billion people worldwide, this food is less than guaranteed. Food security is a complex issue, resulting from a mix of climate change, rural poverty, inadequate stress on agricultural growth, urban development, population growth, oil price shifts, general inflationary trends, political influences, power balances, internal and external displacement of people and several other factors.

Frequent weather changes trigger shifting patterns in crop growth, leading to lowered production, rising prices and inadequate means to feed the world’s hungry millions.

Environmental reports warn that the economic and human costs of natural disasters are likely to become more severe with climate change. Dr Vaqar Ahmad, working at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), expresses his concern, “Even five years from now, if all variables were to remain the same — that is, the speed of climate change, population growth rate, the political situation and so on — food insecurity in Pakistan will increase from the present 58 per cent to 63-65 per cent.” This is a frightening possibility. He adds, “The key assumption here is the low economic growth which, in turn, implies lesser prospects for pro-poor job creation”.

The annual Global Risks Report of the World Economic Forum states that the economic weakness of many countries is sapping the ability of the governments to tackle the growing threat of climate change. Shades of Armageddon? Not quite, but without due care, we may be heading there.

Along with insufficiency of crop harvests is the concomitant increase in population, particularly in developing countries, prompting rising poverty, growing hunger and malnutrition, and wasting and stunting in child growth. As resistance to disease diminishes, frequent childhood infections become more evident in the country.

Pakistan itself has alarmingly high levels of malnutrition, or ‘hidden hunger’; nearly 24 per cent of the population is undernourished. The Food and Agriculture Organisation findings say that 37.5 million people do not receive adequate nourishment. Widespread deficiencies are rampant ranging from protein and iron to iodine deficiencies. Poverty is the main causative factor, leading to low consumption of food and use of foods with low nutritional value. Higher food prices hurt the poorest the most, especially the landless poor and female-headed households.

Paradoxically, there’s enough food in the world to feed everyone. Even though national food security is paramount, not every country is able to attach the same significance to it that it deserves. Developing countries especially are plagued by the multiple problems of poor governance, insufficient investment in agriculture and in research, often with the overweening presence of the corporate sector. Middlemen make more than their fair share of profit, complicating issues of minimal or absent land reforms, and a gendered division of labour.

Despite global food sufficiency, its inequitable distribution within countries and within households, affects individuals at every level, with too much for some and too little for others.

Hunger and malnutrition prevent the poor from escaping poverty, reducing their ability to learn, work and care for themselves and their families.

The world population has reached an unprecedented high, at seven billion people, of whom 20 per cent are suffering from poverty and hunger. In fact, with poor harvests, growing populations and rising demands, the era of cheap food well may be over. Asia is facing its own food crisis as the cost of cereals, particularly rice, has doubled.

Women stand at the nexus between production and reproduction, between economic activities and discriminatory unequal and inequitable power relationships and practices.

Especially in today’s world, it is important, indeed essential, to work with a gendered perspective that takes into account these existing inequalities, and lays the basis for more sustainable development, based on legal and social justice.

Land reforms have often been advocated to improve women’s access to land and control over ownership of land. The trouble is that such reforms can be counterproductive without attention to gender issues. In the Pakistani context, even when women nominally hold titles to land, in actual fact it is still men who hold power and control associated resources and productive factors, such as labour and tools. If women’s lives are to improve, it is crucial and essential to institute land reforms with women’s access to land and resources.

Similarly, in agri-labour, women spend more time in farming activities such as weeding, planting, watering and harvesting, whereas men are more involved in the clearing of land, tilling of the soil and large-scale marketing of produce. It is common knowledge that women earn a pittance or none at all, for their labour, setting in motion yet another power relationship.

Finally, even food security within the home is affected by gender. It is a well-known fact that even now, particularly in poorer rural communities, women tend to eat last.

With a large portion of its population undernourished and hungry, food insecurity is assuming greater urgency. Pakistan simply cannot afford to delay resolution of this threat.