Food Security Policy of Pakistan: Challenges & Response in Covid-19 Environment

Basic objective of any country all over the world and throughout the history has been to improve the quality of life of its citizens. Although a comprehensive concept having social, economic and political dimensions, the first and the most important component of quality of life is the food security—sufficient availability of quality food and its easy and affordable access to maximum numbers of people.

However, now food security not only means availability and access of food to the people but it should be nutritionally balanced and hygienically processed for people who are healthy enough to absorb it. Secondly all the above three components are stable over the long period with precautions taken before hand to meet any emergency which could adversely affect the food security.

The following universally accepted definition of food security by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) contains all the essential elements of food security. “Food security exists when all people, at all times has physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritional food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

Accordingly, we should view the food security as a multi-sectoral phenomenon, a challenge now invariably linked with poverty reduction strategies of the developing countries because of its complex but crucial two-way relationship. That is why the very first Millennium Development Goal dealing with the reduction of poverty lays special emphasis on eradication of hunger from the member countries. While endemic and persistent poverty reduces productivity of the people, it is the low level of productivity, which perpetuates the poverty, thus creating a vicious cycle, which can be broken by proactive actions on multiple fronts.

Food Security Situation in Pakistan

While the food security situation in Pakistan has remained satisfactory in terms of first requirement i.e. food availability during the last two few years, there has been critical gaps in meeting the other components of food security namely food absorption and food stability. The non-farming sector in the rural areas, the urban poor, the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and those living in areas where terrorist activities are going on are extremely vulnerable to shortages of basic necessities of life including food. Keeping in view the overall health profile of the population, particularly those living in rural areas, there is much to be improved to meet the criterion of satisfactory food absorption and calorie intake

Even food availability has come under stress due to the fact Pakistan has been witnessing stagnant yields of its main staple crop namely wheat for the last 4/5 years on account of multiple reasons. Resultantly, our food stocks have been diminishing at a rapid speed, forcing the government to announce the import of wheat to cope with the expected food shortages in the coming winter. While the environmental changes, particularly the climate change, are adversely affecting the yields of all our major crops, Pakistan is facing the worst swarms of locusts for decades whose impact is still not clearly estimated.

However, a bolt from the blue has been this Covid-19 which has put the food systems all over the world under serious threat as never before.  The pandemic, which is feared to last for several more years, with its accompanying lock-downs, has adversely affected the people’s ability to harvest and buy and sell food. There are widespread disruptions in food supply chains causing loss of income to those involved in production, distribution and marketing of food items. Consequently, the price of basic foods has begun to rise in some countries.

Coupled with the increasing unemployment and the loss of income associated with lock downs as millions of seasonal labourers are unable to work, it is putting food out of reach for many who were already at the threshold of the poverty line.  Unfortunately, while lockdowns are adversely affecting the harvests, food waste has reached epidemic levels, with farmers forced to dump perishable produce due to supply chain problems. There are widespread reports of closure of food processing plants in several countries.

According to the UNO, about 50 million people risk falling into extreme poverty this year owing to the pandemic, but the long-term effects will be even worse, as poor nutrition in childhood causes lifelong suffering. Already, one in five children around the world are stunted in their growth by the age of five, and millions more are likely to suffer the same fate if poverty rates soar.

Food Security Action Plan

The UNO has rightly and timely  urged governments to act swiftly as the world stands on the brink of a food crisis worse than any seen for at least 50 years. Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults. We, therefore,  need to act now to avoid the worst impacts of our efforts to control the pandemic. Few suggestions

  •  Creation of Broad-based Food Security Commission: As the food security has several dimensions ranging from food availability to food absorption, there is a need to address this issue in an holistic manner by involving all the concerned ministries, organizations as well as the provincial governments. In order to avoid the proverbial endemic inter-ministerial turf war, it would be appropriate to create a broad based commission at the highest level, preferably at the prime minister level as is the practice in most of the developing countries. Modelled on the pattern of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA ), this Commission would be an appropriate forum  for better coordination and extracting cooperation from all the relevant institutions in ensuring food security. If not possible, then it must be located in the Planning Commission because food security policy can be conveniently dovetailed with its overall growth policy.
  • However, in no case, the Ministry of Food Security and Agricultural Research, should be exclusively in charge of the formulation of the food security policy. Their mandate requires their attention to only one aspect of food security, namely food availability, disregarding the other three elements of food security mentioned above. As such, they cannot not comprehend the enormity of the issue and find appropriate solutions.
  • Preparation of Food Insecurity Profile: One of the first tasks of the Commission should be to update the food insecurity profile of the country to have the exact magnitude and geographical and sectional spread of the food people and regions.. Even when Pakistan was self sufficient in the production of food grains, there were  significant food gaps in terms of consumption between relatively developed regions and those lagging behind. Then there is always a danger of its certain areas falling victims to chronic or transitory food insecurity due to the ongoing violence and terrorism in some of worst affected areas. We must try to remove those deficiencies while preparing any plan of action to ensure equity and inclusiveness in food security
  • Strengthening Social Safety Nets: Better social protections for poor people are urgently needed as the looming recession following the coronavirus pandemic may put basic nutrition beyond their reach. Under the Ehsas Programme,there are multiple initiatives that are comforting the underprivileged. Namely, the Panahgahs (200 sites, 1500+ meals daily), Sehat Sahulat Program (10 million provided with Insaf Cards) and a lot more along with this on complete merit. During the pandemic, it rolled out PKR 144 billion to 12 million families with full transparency. They aim to target 16 million families. The programme has been enhanced to PKR 208 billion despite the economic situation. Highly commendable.
  • Building of Buffer Stocks: Although globally harvests of staple crops are holding up, and the export bans and protectionism that experts feared have so far been largely avoided, the worst of the impacts of the pandemic and ensuing recession are yet to be felt. Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruption in the food supply chain. It is therefore right time to start building buffer stocks by importing wheat in sufficient quantity before the prices start rising or the exporting countries impose restrictions.
  • Long Term Planning Needed: The COVID-19 crisis has exposed dangerous deficiencies in our food systems and actively threatens the lives and livelihoods of people who already live in a precarious state of food insecurity. But it is also an opportunity to improve those systems by carrying out a long term response that prioritises healthy and environmentally sustainable food systems. It of course starts with increasing the domestic agricultural production augmented  with sufficient imports of wheat as and when needed. This in turn means increasing the efficiency of agricultural operations by adopting good agricultural practices. These in nutshell are greater mechanization of agricultural operations, appropriate application of inputs, reducing production and post production losses, timely processing of the produce and ensuring fair returns to the farmers through rationalization of prices of agricultural inputs and outputs. Any remedies must also target the climate emergency, which is strongly linked to food systems. Solutions need to be science-based and coordinated across sectors to provide immediate response and assistance for those most in need.

Conclusion

Keeping in view the complexity of the issue and particularly the sensitive nature of  any food crises, there is an urgent need to address this issue on emergent basis. Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults. We need to act now to avoid the worst impacts of our efforts to control the pandemic.

From the ebook “Pakistan Studies: 20 Essays” by Shahid Hussain Raja

Published by Amazon https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MSF3UMR

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