Abid Qaiyum Suleri, social policy analyst and development practitioner is also a specialist in Food Security from the University of Greenwich, UK, and executive director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute
By Ather Naqvi
The News on Sunday: Spending on food items has increased considerably in our monthly budgets, especially in the last couple of years. What are the reasons?
Abid Qaiyum Suleri: There are many reasons for food price hike in Pakistan. However, to me, the primary reason is inefficient governance that fails to ensure consistent food supply as per the demand of consumers. Increase in prices of agricultural inputs, increase of cost of transportation, damage to physical infrastructure limiting the supply of food products, hoarding and cartelisation (especially in case of sugar) and smuggling of food grains and live animals to neighbouring countries are some of the other factors leading to food inflation. But again, all of the abovementioned issues could have been tackled through better government initiatives at the local level.
Restricted or uncertain physical supply of food triggers panic buying. Those who can afford to pay try to buy beyond their immediate requirement even at higher prices. This further encourages hoarders to sell at a higher price and the vicious cycle continues till the supply becomes stable.
TNS: Despite being an agricultural country, little seems to have gone into our research on ways to enhance per acre yield, why?
AQS: Our public as well as private sector investment in agriculture research and development has sharply declined over the last many decades. Lack of coordination and integration between agricultural universities, agricultural research centres and agricultural extension departments led to a situation where everyone was working in their own ivory castle. We as a nation took a quantum leap from being an agriculture-dependent economy to services sector led economy. However, we ignored the fact that the services sector while contributing to the GDP cannot absorb illiterate and semi-skilled labour force. This institutional and policy neglect of agriculture not only led to stagnant agricultural productivity but is also a major factor behind turning of agricultural lands to unplanned towns and peri-urban slums devoid of basic civic amenities. This situation has turned more grim due to climatic and seasonal variations, thus affecting the per acre yield.
TNS: What is the impact of food insecurity on the common man and how does it affect our overall economy?
AQS: There are four levels of securities: individual, national, regional and global. All of them are mutually non-exclusive and a must for each other. Unfortunately, half of our population is food insecure (as per the SDPI-WFP joint study 2010). This segment of population with massive individual insecurity tends to resort to extreme and extraordinary behaviour. Some of them reduce their meal size, others shift to less preferred diet. Still others prefer to feed the earning family members at the cost of women, elderly people and children in the family.
At the societal level, some of these insecure individuals protest for basic amenities such as an uninterrupted supply of electricity, gas and water; resort to industrial actions (which may turn violent). Or, they are forced to sell their kidneys, even sell their children and resort to various other criminal activities such as theft, burglary, robbery and kidnapping for ransom. Some force their women into prostitution and children in child labour. In worst cases, people commit suicide and/or kill their family members. A few also become prey to militant groups and blow themselves up as suicide bombers. The abovementioned behaviour not only promotes intolerance and violence but also leads to socio-political instability which affects economic growth and prosperity.
TNS: Are we in a position to cope with the food shortage created by the floods of 2010 and the present one in Sindh?
AQS: Fortunately, wheat, our staple food, was not much affected by two successive floods. However, food security does not mean ensuring wheat security only. Floods have a massive impact on people’s socio-economic access to food. Survivors of floods lost their livelihood, their reserved food, livestock and shelter. Strong social safety nets and innovative policies can not only help to restore people’s livelihoods but can also improve their socio-economic access to food.
Food distribution in the short run and the distribution of agricultural inputs in flood affected areas by the various national and international organisations did yield a positive result and should be continued in the flood affected areas of Sindh.
Let me again reiterate that ours is not only a food crisis, we are also faced with a severe governance crisis and I don’t see any way out until the crisis is resolved.
TNS: Is kitchen farming a viable option in our part of the world?
AQS: It is a very viable option, especially in order to ensure the smooth supply of perishable kitchen items such as vegetables etc. However, it would only work if our agricultural extension services are able to deliver.
On the Mesoscale, we had the provision of farm houses around Islamabad (and now they are a status symbol around all mega cities). The concept of farm houses in Islamabad was to provide fresh and uninterrupted supply of food to urban consumers. However, they are being used as part places of retired generals, senior bureaucrats and politicians. We need to revert to the original concept of farms houses and kitchen gardening to remain food secure in a rapidly changing world.
TNS: Why have we not been able to get rid of the middle man? Do we have an alternative?
AQS: In the absence of functional public sector institutions, middle men are playing a crucial role in sustaining our agricultural sector. They provide loans to buy inputs for the next crop without collateral, thus function as a micro-finance institute. They buy standing crops, thereby offering insurance to any seasonal damage. They provide storage facilities. They help in grading and marketing. They take care of important documentation for export (in case of exportable commodities). They also take care of road to market connectivity. Perhaps, we need to enhance the bargaining power of farming communities so that they don’t get exploited by the middle men. I would say that if we cannot provide farmers with loans without collateral, if we cannot offer them farm insurance, storage and grading facilities, and connectivity to markets then it would be better to institutionalise and formalise the role of middle men.
TNS: In a free-market economy like ours, do you think the government has a role to play in keeping the food prices under control?
AQS: Free-market economy works where the institution of market is functional and the rights of consumers are protected. Unfortunately, we lack in both these prerequisites. The government should ensure a smooth functioning of markets and infrastructure farm to market connectivity, discourage malpractices such as cartelization, ensure that producers and marketers meet the basic requirements of quality standards. On top of it, the prime responsibility of the government is to ensure the protection of consumer rights. If the government takes these measures, the prices of food would be automatically under control.
TNS: Have we been able to establish a link between the farm and the industry so that they can complement each other as is the case in some other countries of the world?
AQS: Not yet. Unfortunately, we could never think of value addition in food chain. Pasteurised milk, local sausages and fruit juices are some of the recent examples but there is a lot of potential, especially in fruits/vegetables, cereal/flakes, dairy items and meat sector where linking industry and agriculture would not only ensure food supply but also increase choices for consumers.
TNS: How do we compare our agricultural situation with that of India, since it has a huge population to feed?
AQS: In India, the green revolution followed the white revolution (milk and diary products). The situation is not ideal there too when it comes to food security. Their small farmers are heavily indebted and many are forced to commit suicides due to financial hardships, but the good thing is that their government is investing in agricultural sector. Fortunately, the word cooperative agriculture did not get scandalised in India and that is one of the secrets why they are able to feed 1.2 billion people. Pakistan can learn from India’s innovative ideas like free school meals and minimum employment guarantee schemes to overcome the problems of socio-economic access to food.
This article was originally published at: The News
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.