Food security is national security: Pakistan's looming crisis
The Pakistan Business Council's latest report on the agricultural sector highlights three significant issues. Firstly, the increasing food inflation rate is causing food to become less accessible to low-income groups. Secondly, there is a risk that inadequate foreign exchange reserves may restrict the government's ability to import food promptly and address any deficits. Thirdly, while the population growth rate remains high, crop yields have stagnated.
Consider the example of wheat, where the yield growth has been stagnant in comparison to other countries, and despite the government's engagement in wheat procurement, there has been a lack of significant investment in areas such as wheat seed development, mechanization, storage and processing. As a result of the widening gap between the demand and supply of wheat, importing wheat has become a regular practice.
Although rice and maize receive comparatively less government assistance, both have shown promising results in terms of high-yielding hybrid seeds and mechanization. Nonetheless, in these crops as well, there are still issues with quantity and quality losses caused by obsolete practices, sub-optimal storage conditions, unfair market practices, and uncertain logistics.
What has led us to this point? Firstly, frequent policy reversals have resulted in an uncertain business environment, limiting investment and discouraging farmers from adopting new technologies and practices. Additionally, public investment in agriculture has not been efficient, leading to a lack of agro-specific infrastructure such as storage facilities and cold chains, thereby restricting the smooth movement of agricultural output and food within the country and making trade with the outside world difficult. The weak transport and storage infrastructure has also led to significant post-harvest losses and wastage. Due to falling and uncertain return to investment in agriculture sector, getting foreign direct investment is fast becoming difficult.
Despite support from communities, private sector, and development partners, most NPOs struggle to build farming capabilities across the country due to lack of formal permissions from the government.
Dr. Vaqar Ahmed
Furthermore, public investment and direct government action have not been focused on reclaiming lost agricultural land or making the land, currently unsuitable for farming, conducive for cultivation. Climate change has also made agriculture vulnerable to extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and heatwaves, which have a devastating impact on agricultural potential, as seen in floods sweeping away farmer output year-on-year. The water shortage due to the rapid depletion of groundwater resources has also adversely impacted crop yields and production.
Civil society and community-based non-profit organizations that stepped forward during the 1990s and 2000s to address this perilous situation have been pushed back. Despite support from communities, private sector, and development partners, most NPOs struggle to build farming capabilities across the country due to lack of formal permissions from the government.
Going forward, the solutions to food insecurity challenge require the government, private sector, civil society, and development partners to come together and have a longer term vision for food security. To develop a comprehensive and sustainable strategy, it's important to acknowledge that food security extends beyond simply providing an adequate supply of food. Rather, food security is multifaceted and can be broken down into four primary components. These include availability, which refers to the physical quantity and quality of food; access, which considers the social, economic, and political factors that affect a person's ability to obtain food; physical access, which refers to the geographic and logistical barriers that may prevent people from accessing food; utilization, which considers the ability of individuals and households to obtain and use food in a way that meets their nutritional needs; and stability, which encompasses protection against sudden shocks such as natural disasters or conflicts, as well as the stability of markets, institutions, and policies that impact food production and consumption. By considering all of these facets, a long-term vision for food security can be developed that addresses the root causes of food insecurity and supports sustainable and equitable access to food.
Food security is also a national security challenge. Past experiences have shown that sudden spikes in food prices or food shortages can lead to social unrest and create tensions between provinces. In such circumstances, smaller provinces often accuse larger provinces of withholding supplies, while the larger provinces and the federal government may point fingers at smaller provinces for smuggling or exporting agricultural goods beyond Pakistan's borders. This cycle of blame must come to an end. Since the 18th amendment, provinces have taken on greater responsibilities in the field of agriculture. However, the federal government cannot relinquish its duties regarding policy coordination and national-level planning.
— Dr. Vaqar Ahmed is an economist and former civil servant.
He tweets @vaqarahmed