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Food security in the age of Covid-19

There never was any lockdown in the country’s agricultural sector. And from the way the NCC and NCOC have been carrying out, their respective efforts over the last two months at meeting the challenges of Covid-19, it appears that for lack of enough testing capacity, inadequate supplies of medical infrastructure like doctors, nurses, hospital beds, paramedics, masks, non-enforcement of social distancing code in rural regions as well as non-availability of authentic information on incidence of Covid-19 in these regions, governments, federal as well as the provincial could not conduct tests in these vast agricultural tracts of the country where majority of Pakistan’s population lives.

So far no known adverse cases of Covid-19 have been reported from these areas. One hopes the pandemic has by and large left our agricultural sector alone. In case the situation is not what it seems then the country is likely to face a massive shortage of agricultural produce adversely affecting the country’s food security. Secondly, in view of the recent decision of major food exporters of the world to curtail their exports in order to ensure food security for their own respective populations, enhancing Pakistan’s food security by increasing food imports would be a non-starter.

However, let us hope that our agricultural sector is in a position to produce more than enough not only to ensure food security for our own population but also to earn the much needed foreign exchange in substantial amounts by exporting the surpluses.

In order to achieve this ambitious goal Pakistan needs to frame an agricultural policy to cultivate from wall -to –wall all our available agricultural land producing grains as well as perishable vegetables and other food items in huge quantities, construct huge silos and large cold storages in public sector to stock grains and store perishable food items to keep domestic food prices within the reach of the poorest of the poor but without harming the economic interests of the farmers and also to export the surpluses. This should be mostly a public-private partnership activity with the farmers cultivating the land and the government constructing the silos and cold storages to make the most out of this policy. The government should purchase the entire produce from the farmers at cost-plus prices to be fixed by the Agricultural Prices Commission and market it at subsidized rates for the domestic consumers and the surpluses to be exported at the global rates. The government would also need to set up huge dairy farms as well as large livestock corrals.

Financing of this huge undertaking would have to be done initially by printing currency notes as revenue income would be even less than the normal earnings because of the IMF and Covid-19-induced deepening recession. These activities in the meanwhile would open up massive job opportunities for the poorest of the poor living in our rural areas.

Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates that 40 to 60 million more people will be living in extreme poverty in coming months, depending on the scale of the economic shock.

It is, therefore, important to not only ensure people access basic food supplies, but also that they have money to purchase them. On average, food accounts for up to 60 percent of household expenditures in low income countries and 40 percent in emerging and developing market economies. Economic recession and loss of livelihoods quickly erode the food security of millions of people – especially if food prices increase.

Social safety nets for the poorest and most vulnerable are, therefore, needed as part of the immediate and next phase of COVID-19 emergency assistance. Many countries are using social safety nets to respond. However, much more needs to be done to compensate income losses and support businesses and promote economic resilience. In poorer countries, social safety nets and inclusion programmes remain limited in budget, coverage, benefit levels and flexibility, and need to be significantly scaled up to respond to a crisis of this magnitude.

The pandemic will cause disruptions in public sector programmes on food, nutrition, health and poverty that poor people depend on. Other safety nets, too, have been affected, including nutrition programmes for pregnant women and lactating mothers. Key health programmes, such as child immunization, have been disrupted as well. And of course, public food relief programmes face the risk of exposing more people to the virus by attracting large crowds at distribution points.

Although there has been progress, food security and malnutrition remain a huge challenge for South Asia where Pakistan is located. Hence the World Bank is prioritizing food security in the region’s Covid-19 response. This entails maintaining domestic production, keeping borders open, minimizing disruptions to supply chains, and strengthening global cooperation to secure food. It is also essential, in the opinion of WB, to focus on the needs of the most vulnerable and ensure that food is not only plentiful, but also nutritious. WB’s South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI) teaches a number of effective ways to do this such as focusing on nutrient-dense foods, combining social safety net programmes with nutrition education, and tailoring interventions for pregnant and nursing women, young children, and adolescent females.

South Asia still accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s stunted children, which means they are too short for their age, usually from malnutrition. Stunting affects brain development and has a lifelong impact. Similarly, women in South Asia have some of the world’s highest rates of anemia, an iron deficiency.

As the World Bank and other development partners address pandemic-related food security in the region, this is a good time to revisit important lessons learned from WB’s SAFANSI, particularly for vulnerable groups such as women and children. The initiative piloted innovative ideas and filled critical knowledge gaps about malnutrition and food security. With support from the United Kingdom, Australia, and the European Commission, SAFANSI provided $24.2 million to finance more than 100 activities.

SAFANSI (Ensuring food security and nutrition in South Asia during COVID-19, a World Bank Blog by Cecile Frumanyinan Zhang, published on May 05, 2020) focused on improving the micro- and macro-nutrient content of food needed for good health, rather than sufficient caloric intake alone. It examined reasons behind the region’s sharp disparities in the nutrition status of men and women. The programme also developed packages of interventions to help poor households by combining expertise in agriculture, health, education, water supply, sanitation, and social safety nets.

Below are some of SAFANSI’s findings that can help guide recovery efforts in South Asia over the coming months, especially for the vulnerable population:

1. A SAFANSI-funded research study, The Nutrition Sensitivity of Food and Agriculture in South Asia, identified a set of complex relationships underlying malnutrition. Social safety nets, including food transfer programs, can help the most vulnerable households cope with food shortages and rising prices, though transfers may be too small to support long-term improvements in nutrition and health. Investments in home gardens and livestock can help households weather future crises by providing access to nutritious vegetables, eggs, and milk.

2. Another study, The Cost of a Nutritious Diet in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, suggests that consumers in these countries should spend more of their food budget on perishables such as dairy and vegetables. The average household here consumes enough cereals and starchy staples but lacks a sufficient quantity of vegetables, which often have more variable prices. Trade disruptions related to COVID-19 are constraining supply chains and could lead to higher prices for perishable foods, exacerbating these deficiencies.

3. A further study, Gender-Inclusive Nutrition Activities in South Asia, examined why gender is a key factor in the region’s malnutrition rates. It found that efforts to improve nutrition should go beyond a mother’s cooking knowledge and include social factors such as her household and community support, and her control over household spending. Additionally, adolescent girls are too often ignored by existing programmes despite high rates of under nutrition and pregnancies at a young age.

4. Pakistan has succeeded in producing more food, but the country’s poorest and most vulnerable often cannot afford a sufficient and nutritious diet. Even some households classified as food secure may have some members suffering from malnutrition because of how food is distributed. After the central government delegated nutrition issues to provincial governments, SAFANSI helped develop nutrition policy guidance notes in four provinces that stressed multi-sectoral coordination with a focus on water supply and hygiene, food security, health care services, girls’ education, and social safety nets.

5. A Bangladesh conditional cash transfer pilot program that paid poor households an average of $5-10 per month reduced wasting in children under two. An evaluation concluded that the combination of cash, nutrition education, and growth monitoring motivated mothers to feed their children more nutritious food.

6. In Bhutan, a national nutrition assessment worked with a range of stakeholders to identify factors in malnutrition. The study, described here, informed the government’s five-year plan for 2013-18. It found key causes of stunting were women’s poor nutrition and health care before and during pregnancy. Other factors included Bhutan’s dependence on food imports and vulnerability to world price fluctuations, as well as cultural and ethnic influences on feeding practices.

7. In India, half of all children are deficient in Vitamin A. Among children under five years old, 70 percent lack enough vitamin D. A pilot programme supported by Tata Trusts, dairy producers, and state-level milk federations added vitamins A and D to milk. One glass of fortified milk (320 grams) provides about one-third of the vitamin A and nearly half of the vitamin D recommended for daily consumption. SAFANSI worked with partners behind the scenes to help establish regulatory standards for fortifying whole, low-fat, and skim milk.

M ZIAUDDIN, "Food security in the age of Covid-19," Business Recorder. 2020-05-20.
Keywords: Economics , Economic issues , Agricultural sector , Medical infrastructure , Agricultural policy , Economic interests , Domestic consumers , Printing currency , World Bank , Extreme poverty , Market economies , Economic recession , Pakistan , Afghanistan , Covid-19 , SAFANSI

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