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Increasing food insecurity

April 01, 2013

– Reuters (File Photo)

THERE has been a significant rise in the number of food insecure people in the country over the last five years. The number now stands at 51 per cent of the total population as compared to 22 per cent in 2007, says Pakistan Agriculture Scientists Association Chairman Jamshed Iqbal Cheema.

At a discussion organised by the Agriculture Journalist Association (Aja) at Lahore recently, Cheema cited the reduced crop production in Punjab — the grain house of the country — because of the ill-conceived agricultural policies of the government, as a major reason for the increase in food security. According to him, the decline in agricultural productivity in Punjab started between 2007 and 2011 whereas in Sindh it increased significantly despite some reduction in the cultivation area.

They key issue in productivity is lack of enough investment in modernisation of farming which is moving at a slow pace for want of enough savings with the farmers, lack of investment by a vast majority of the growers and paucity of bank credit.

The widely accepted definition of food security adopted in the World Food Summit (1996) is: “When all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet the dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

The common perception about food insecurity in Pakistan is that there is physical availability of safe and nutritious food, but due to economic constraints, between 20 and 29 per cent of the population goes hungry. According to reports, the number of people who live in hunger has risen over a decade due to constrained purchasing power.

The previous government’s policy to increase support price of wheat and sugarcane encouraged farmers to some extent, and motivated them to bring in more area under cultivation and to increase per acre yield. However, the benefits were substantially eroded by increase in the cost of inputs. Moreover, it could not create food security because of the escalation in prices of the crops and financial inability of the consumers to purchase enough of the foodstuff at higher rates.

Similarly, with depreciating rupee, imports of pulses, which are not produced in sufficient quantity within the country, have become costly and expensive for the common man.

The crisis continues to worsen. According to a common observation, there has been a visible increase in the number of people visiting free-feeding centres of Edhi, Chipa, Sailani, Alamgir and other such welfare trusts in Karachi as well as in other big cities of the country.

In an April 2012 report, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) had stated that 37 per cent of the urban population was food insecure and warned the government to “reduce the risk of a severe hunger-like situation.” The 2011 National Nutrition Survey revealed that 58 per cent of the households were food insecure. It also noted widespread malnutrition among children, with women also badly hit in the past eight years.

The SBP had earlier asserted in another report published in December 2011, “Majority of the rural population is facing food insecurity including malnutrition, under-nutrition, hunger, etc. The population consuming less than 1700 calories per day, which is far below the international levels, has increased from 35 million to 45 million during last couple of years”.

Cheema suggested that the government should reduce the cost of inputs by waving taxes, and bring down diesel prices and electricity tariff for growers. This, he believed, will enhance usage of quality seeds, adequate quantity of fertilisers, pesticides and other inputs with more areas under the plough which would increase per acre yield and enhance over all crop production thus ensuring, to a great extent, food security in the country.