Despite efforts by the Pakistani government and international organizations, inflation, declining income, natural disasters and stagnating domestic productivity are hampering attempts to achieve food security for the country’s 180 million citizens.
More than half of households are food insecure, according to the last major national nutrition survey.
The prices of staple grains like wheat and rice have been stable but are “significantly higher” than 2011, according to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) October 2012 Global Food Security Update.
A 25 percent rise in fuel prices has also pushed up the price of food, as it becomes increasingly expensive to transport. WFP says rising food prices in international markets recently may also lead to price hikes in Pakistan.
“Efforts have to be made to increase production, but in Pakistan, the problem of food security is mainly a problem of access. Over the last couple of years, Pakistan has officially been a food surplus country in terms of cereal production,” says Krishna Pahari, head of WFP’s Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping unit in Islamabad.
“But many households here don’t have access to that food. Many are marginal, deficit, subsistence farmers whose own production is not enough to meet their needs. You’re a farmer, but you have to buy food from the market because of insufficient production.”
Despite the concerns of officials and experts, some believe that because Pakistan’s primary food security issue is access, there are ways to handle it.
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“This also provides an opportunity,” says Pahari. “It means that in terms of the national food situation, maybe Pakistan is OK. With good management, and by putting mechanisms in place to improve access, there is potential to ensure food security.”
Agriculture is the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy, contributing 21 percent of the country’s GDP and employing 45 percent of the labour force. The lack of innovation and a failure to increase efficiency at farms across Pakistan, however, has led to stagnant productivity.
“In 1999, our production per acre of wheat was 1,040-1,090kg. Look at how much our population has increased in the last 13 years, but our production per acre for wheat today is the same,” said Ibrahim Mughal, chairman of the Pakistan Agri Forum, one of the country’s largest farmers’ organizations.
Many farms employ antiquated farming methods, and the inefficient use of water also contributes to poor productivity. Water availability in Pakistan, where a large percentage of agriculture relies on irrigation, has been dwindling. Experts say if water is not utilized more efficiently, production is likely to decline, and could dramatically impact food security.
The failure to boost domestic productivity has meant an increasing burden on what is harvested, with Pakistan’s population growing at the fastest rate in South Asia. Poor economic performance over the last five years means millions of Pakistanis have less to spend on increasingly expensive food.
Rising global grain prices have also adversely affected food security in Pakistan.
“International prices have gone up, but on the domestic level, farmers are getting a lower procurement price. So they’re not interested and may shift to other crops,” said Mughal.
According to the Pakistan Agri Forum, based on the cultivation trend so far, the 2012-13 wheat production target of 26 million tons is unlikely to be realized.
Poor food security has a direct impact on the population, experts say, which leads to indirect consequences for the country’s already weak economy.
“Very serious nutrition outcomes”
“That the food security situation is very serious overall is reflected in the very poor, very serious nutrition outcomes,” said WFP’s Pahari. “If we look at [the number of children with low weight for their height], the rate in Pakistan is 15.1 percent for children under five. Any value above 15 is considered an emergency level by the WHO.”
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“Children aren’t growing as they are supposed to.”
Outside a mosque in Islamabad, 30-year-old widow Rukayya Bibi begs people leaving after prayers to give her some money to buy wheat flour for her three children.
“How can I think about doing anything else with my life when I don’t have enough money to even feed my children?” she asks, holding her youngest child, a six-month old boy. “If I buy roti [bread], I have no money to buy anything else.”
For people like Bibi, there is some assistance from the government under the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), a government-run social safety net scheme which started in 2008 and aims to provide the poorest households in Pakistan with monthly cash support. The programme is assisting 5.5 million families.
“The immediate task is ensuring that the poorest do not suffer because of inflation, because that hits the entire chain from farms to markets,” says an official at Pakistan’s Ministry of Food Security and Research, requesting not to be named as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
“BISP has been a significant investment, but much more needs to be done about price controls across the sector. But we can only do so much; our fortunes fluctuate with global fuel prices.”
In Islamabad’s main agricultural produce market, vegetable seller Rasheed Khan says he is not likely to wait for the government to do something about the inflation and price fluctuations that have hit him hard.
“I’ve been selling vegetables for years, but have never had to deal with so much uncertainty and hardship,” said the 30-year-old, who wants to give up his vegetable stall to find work somewhere else.
“What is the point if I’m losing money? I might as well stop and do something that actually helps me feed my family.”