Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri, an expert on food security, gives an insight on the different dimensions of the prevailing crisis
Dr Suleri is the Executive Director, Social Development Policy Institute (SDPI), social policy analyst and development practitioner. He is currently working on a comparative analysis of Pakistan’s districts in terms of the state of food insecurity.
What are the main reasons of food insecurity in Pakistan?
Food insecurity is multidimensional, affecting at the national, provincial, district and household levels. It has various categories, such as chronic, acute and transit. The causes behind this alarming phenomenon vary for each case. There are three prerequisites that determine whether food insecurity exists: (physical) availability of food (through production, import, aid, inter-district transfer, etc.), (socioeconomic) access to food, and food assimilation (i.e., when food is absorbed and digested by the body).
Physical availability at both the macro and micro levels gets negatively affected due to a lack of local production; natural and man-made disasters, weak infrastructure, insufficient storage capacities, hoarding, law and order situation, etc. Socioeconomic access to food, however, gets adversely affected due to poverty; lack of resources, loss of livelihood opportunities due to rising militancy, energy crisis and political instability; lack of a consistent supply of subsidised food items due to a reduced fiscal cushion, low literacy rate, lack of awareness about the benefits of maintaining a balanced diet and social norms such as gender discrimination when it come to distribution of resources within the family.
The factors that hamper food assimilation, on the other hand, include lack of clean drinking water, health, hygiene and sanitation facilities, low literacy rate, lack of fiscal cushion for government to spend on public sector development programmes, which would help ensure basic service delivery. Various other overlapping factors also contribute to the burgeoning food crisis in Pakistan.
While inaugurating your Food insecurity in Pakistan report last year, the then federal minister of food and agriculture contradicted your findings, which dubbed 48.6 per cent of the population as food insecure. What is your stance on it?
Unfortunately for most policymakers in Pakistan, the term ‘food security’ means availability of wheat. Hence, a bumper crop of wheat is wrongly considered as a sign of food security. There are quite a few sources of carbohydrates and wheat is one of them.
However, to be on top of the Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) of carbohydrates, a person would require a total DRI of proteins, fats, vitamins and other micronutrients to be completely food secure.
Even in the case of wheat, a bumper crop in the few districts of Pakistan does not guarantee that the rest of the country would have physical availability of, or any access to, the crop. That is why the price of the wheat flour varies in the Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. In our study, we also found that in 2009-10 there was a 10 per cent reduction in the consumption of wheat, mainly due to food inflation. I am not trying to undermine the importance of wheat, but would, however, like to suggest the government think about the other aspects of food security besides increasing the wheat production.
A country which cannot produce the needed food or afford to import food from the international market is not a ‘food sovereign state’. Thus, being a fundamental component of national security, why is the food crisis still not taken seriously enough?
Food sovereignty is a slightly different concept. It is food security, plus the situation which implies that a country should be self-sufficient in fulfilling its food requirements and should not be dependent on any external factors for its food security. In its strictest sense, even procuring food from the international market may disqualify the state from being food sovereign, as there may be trade sanctions blocking the supply of food.
Likewise, a hike in the commodity prices may erode the purchasing capacity of the buying country.
We may not be a food sovereign state in the near to mid-term future (in any case, we would have to import edible oil because our domestic production cannot meet the requirement). However, we should aim to be a food secure state. Unfortunately, none of the governments has taken food crisis seriously. The huge influence of the armed forces in public policy has ensured that Pakistan’s national security is emphasised over individual security, and public spending is deeply skewed against social development programmes. Public sector development expenditures always face the brunt of fiscal constraints, because policymakers refuse to reduce spending on defence, debt repayment or public sector administration. Resultantly, food crisis is never taken seriously and there are no integrated plans for ensuring food security.
What steps—on individual and national levels—do you think should be taken to overcome the food problem?
We have to have a national food security strategy—a strategy that should address all the three aspects of food security. It is a good thing that the ministry of food and agriculture has got devolved to the provinces under the 18th Amendment. However, there must be a division or ministry of food security at the federal level as well. This ministry should be responsible for implementing the food security strategy by ensuring that it becomes an important priority of all other national policies. Thus, social safety net measures like ‘Food for work’ programmes should be initiated at the national level. Like in some South Asian countries, the government should administer free lunches for children in schools, ensuring that our youngsters get a balanced diet. Also, the prices of the inputs of food crops should be strictly monitored to reduce the cost of food production.
Finally, the government should spend more in the social sector development to ensure availability of the basic conditions for food assimilation.
At an individual level, we need to change our food consumption behaviours. We have already talked about the need for creating equality when it comes to food distribution (and access to food opportunities) at the household level. Moreover, it should be kept in mind that a healthy and balanced diet does not have to be an expensive one. We should also avoid panic-buying when the supply of food commodities gets restricted, for it only results in further hoarding by the profiteers, who hope to benefit from the demand-supply equation.
This article was originally published at: Dawn
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.