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Pakistan’s food insecurity

Daily Times | 20 January 2009

Syed Mohammad Ali

In 78 percent of the country’s districts with urban populations, per capita income is below US$100 a month. Thus even if the food is there, most poor people in our country cannot afford it

The current global financial crisis has coincided with a food crisis, resultantly wiping out nearly 30 years of progress on reducing hunger. New figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation provide clear evidence of this fact, indicating that the number of hungry people around that world has actually risen, with an estimated 963 million unable to get adequate food as of last year.

The above statistics imply that nearly 17 percent of the world’s population is presently going hungry, which is a level of malnutrition last seen in 1990. This increased level of malnutrition implies a range of accompanying complications such as higher levels of disease, ill health and lower economic growth, which in turn will further erode the food security of poor people.

ActionAid points out that there are more hungry people in the world today than there were in 1948, when governments first declared food to be a fundamental human right. It is even more disturbing that this has occurred despite the world being seven times richer today than it was at that time.

While commodity prices around the world may be easing, consumer food prices remain at historic highs. The price of basic staples is simply unaffordable for poor people. Moreover, many of these poor people are losing their jobs or other sources of livelihoods because of the ongoing financial crisis, which will worsen hunger levels further.

Small farmers in many developing countries are confronting rollercoaster prices alongside a squeeze on inputs and credits. It will therefore not be surprising if we experience another massive surge in food prices fairly soon.

In June last year, delegates from 181 countries agreed to ramp up investment in agriculture, and make it the cornerstone of a sustainable solution to the food crisis. But despite the $22 billion pledged, only 10 percent has actually been delivered. Moreover, most of this money has gone into providing emergency food aid rather than helping growing food. The well-known adage of ‘teaching people how to fish, as opposed to feeding them fish’ seems to have been utterly ignored.

The world continues to spend enormous amounts of money on instruments of death when only a small fraction of national defence budgets could ensure that every citizen could have clean water to drink and enough food to eat.

Within the context of our own country, steep rises in food prices are leading to fears concerning the creation of a new class of poor, who do not even have enough to eat. The production of the staple crop of wheat has been falling rather than rising due to a range of factors, including its wastage due to inefficient transportation, inadequate storage facilities, deteriorating irrigation systems and conversion of land for other purposes.

One of the current government’s solutions devised to address this problem is aiming to attract investment in agriculture from the Middle East. However, analysts believe that Arab investment would be export-oriented to cater to the agricultural needs of those countries instead of helping met our own needs. Saudi Arabia, for instance, which is being identified as one of the main sources of investment in agriculture in Pakistan, is itself suffering from food insecurity. The UAE is also reported to have acquired some agricultural land in Pakistan recently; whether this acquisition will be able to meet the dual objective of converting our wheat deficit into a surplus, and addressing food security needs of both Pakistan and the UAE remains to be seen.

Any strategy for increasing food productivity must recognise that the natural water cycle within Pakistan has already been exploited to an extent that the country may become water-deficient within five years. The ability of foreign investment in agriculture to ensure more sustainable water use is highly doubtable based on emergent international experiences.

With rapid urbanisation on the rise, the food security situation looks set to worsen. The problem is particularly severe in Balochistan, where 20 out of 25 districts with urban populations are now classified as highly food insecure. The entire Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where opportunities for earning livelihoods remain limited, where cultivated land is scarce, and where the security situation is also projected to remain tenuous in the coming future, food insecurity has also become a very serious threat.

With land ownership at a minimum, agricultural work is increasingly becoming less viable for the average agricultural worker, prompting many day-labourers to move to the country’s larger cities and towns in search of jobs. And in 78 percent of the country’s districts with urban populations, per capita income is below US$100 a month. Thus even if the food is there, most poor people in our country cannot afford it.

Therefore, rising food prices and low purchasing power are leading to increased food insecurity in Pakistan’s growing cities and towns, where some 35 percent of the country’s over 160 million inhabitants now live. According to a report by the UN World Food Programme, of the 56 million people living in Pakistan’s urban areas, about 21 million are now deemed food insecure. 95 of the country’s 121 districts now face food insecurity problems, including malnutrition, under nutrition, hunger, disease and poverty.

For the practical realisation of the goal of food sovereignty that has been eluding our nation since the time of independence, the importance of genuine agrarian reform and peasants’ rights cannot be underestimated. The unequal distribution of land and the lack of constitutional rights of peasants prevalent in our country have to be addressed squarely, so that poor people in rural areas gain access to and control over land resources. The state must simultaneously assure that they are provided the required resources to produce surplus food, using sustainable agricultural practices to be able to adequately feed the population of the country before thinking about letting food be exported abroad under the preconditions of foreign investment or else for the sake of generating additional revenue.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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