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How to tackle food insecurity

While prioritizing macroeconomic stability rightfully claims the top spot on the incoming government’s agenda, it is equally imperative to accord equal priority to the pressing issue of ensuring food security in Pakistan.

A prevalent tendency to dismiss reports highlighting the worsening food insecurity in the country often relies on the argument that a nation self-sufficient in staples like wheat, milk, and meat and an exporter of rice, mangoes, oranges, etc, cannot possibly be food insecure. However, this argument, though powerful, ignores that food security means sustained availability of nutritious food for everyone at affordable prices, alongside factors like clean drinking water, health services, and a balanced diet (to assimilate that food).

The constitutional obligation of the state, enshrined in Article 38 of the constitution of Pakistan, mandates the provision of basic necessities, including food, for citizens unable to earn their livelihood. What must the new government do to fulfil its obligation? I will elude to that later. But first, let us recap the state of food insecurity in Pakistan and how it is deteriorating due to an economic meltdown and extreme weather conditions.

The impact of extreme weather conditions on food security can be gauged by the fact that the floods in 2022 pushed an additional nine million people into high levels of acute food insecurity. This number does not include those who felt food insecurity in non-flood-affected areas due to disrupted supplies or the loss of economic opportunities after floods.

Even before these calamities, the state of food security in Pakistan was disconcerting, as revealed by Unicef’s National Nutrition Survey in 2018. The survey exposed that one in three Pakistanis faced some level of food insecurity, and one in five experienced undernourishment. Alarming statistics indicated that two out of five children under the age of five were stunted (low height for age), highlighting the depth of the challenge.

A more recent report from the FAO in 2023 (State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023 ) underscores the gravity of the situation, indicating a surge in moderate to severe food insecurity from 14.1 per cent during 2014-2016 to 42.3 per cent during 2020-2022. This threefold surge, while partly attributed to the challenges posed by Covid-19 and superfloods in 2022, highlights the vulnerability of a significant portion of the population to any unforeseen shocks.

The impact of such unforeseen shocks becomes more damaging when the households have a very limited economic buffer. In a recent report, the World Food Program reveals a distressing trend: the average Pakistani spends half (50.8 per cent) of its monthly income on food expenses. Over the recent years, Pakistan has experienced currency depreciation, a decline in purchasing power, an increase in energy tariffs, and an overall escalation in the cost of living. To meet the non-negotiable essential expenses like utility bills, rent, and transportation, many individuals reluctantly compromise on their spending, particularly in crucial areas such as health, education, and, most critically, food.

Compromising on spending on food means shifting to small portions of low-quality, unbalanced food, which implies that coping strategy to meet their fixed expenses leads many to food insecurity and malnutrition.

Affordability is another crucial aspect. The above-cited FAO report estimated that a staggering 82.8 per cent of the population was unable to afford the cost of maintaining a healthy diet in Pakistan which was estimated to be $3.89 per person per day (purchasing power parity) in 2021. The 35 per cent depreciation of the rupee against the dollar and the global surge in commodity prices since 2021 further accentuate the unattainability of a nutritious diet for the majority of Pakistanis. This is why a healthy and balanced diet is a far-fetched dream for most of them.

Beyond the moral imperative, the economic consequences of food insecurity and malnutrition are staggering. A study conducted by the World Food Program and the government of Pakistan in 2016, estimated that the economic consequences of undernutrition amounted to approximately $7.6 billion annually. This calculation encompassed factors such as the lost future workforce due to child mortality, reduced future adult productivity from childhood stunting, anemia, and iodine deficiency, as well as the costs associated with health care services due to micronutrient deficiencies, suboptimal breastfeeding, and low birth weight.

Recalculate the above cost considering the three-fold increase in food insecurity in Pakistan between 2014-16 and 2020-2022. Can any government aiming to achieve sustained economic revival ignore the cost of opportunity worth billions of dollars due to undernutrition?

As the new government rightly pursues the next IMF programme for macroeconomic stability, it must be cautious about exacerbating the cost of living, which would further impact food security. Effective collaboration between federal and provincial governments is crucial to addressing the food security challenges in Pakistan. It is the state’s collective responsibility to take care of citizens’ food security and cannot be discharged without a whole-of-government and the whole-of-policy approach

Likewise, a comprehensive approach is essential, acknowledging that all pillars of food security – physical availability, socioeconomic access, assimilation in the body, and sustainability – must be ensured simultaneously. Focusing solely on boosting productivity through inefficient subsidies and minimum support price mechanisms for certain crops (that often distort the market) may overlook systemic issues like distribution inefficiencies and socio-economic disparities.

To improve food availability, Pakistan needs a transition from conventional agriculture to climate-smart agriculture. The new (federal and provincial) governments should redirect the existing agricultural subsidies to agricultural research and development, especially in precision and digitalized agriculture and biotech innovations. Simultaneously, targeted interventions in rural infrastructure to improve transportation networks and storage facilities can mitigate post-harvest losses, ensuring that increased agricultural output reaches consumers.

To improve economic access to food, the governments will have to think beyond popular schemes like ‘sasta tandoor’ and come up with initiatives that create livelihood opportunities, improve the consumable income of citizens, take administrative measures to curb hoarding and inefficient markets and address socio-economic disparities, including through strengthening social safety nets like conditional and unconditional cash transfers for vulnerable segments of society.

The importance of clean drinking water, sanitation facilities, improved health services, education, and awareness campaigns emphasizing the importance of balanced diets and proper nutrition cannot be overstated in improving food utilization. For understanding, consider consuming a multicourse meal at a five-star hotel and then drinking contaminated water. It is unlikely to provide food security but may cause food poisoning. The new governments, especially in the provinces, will have to work on providing prerequisites for improved food utilization.

A national nutrition policy framework is essential to promote the use of a healthy diet. Likewise, the National Food Security Policy needs to be revisited to address the growing impacts of climate change on food security.

Along with a focus on economic recovery, the government needs to chalk out a comprehensive food security plan, and none should negatively affect the other. Striking this delicate balance is undoubtedly challenging, echoing Shakespeare’s timeless wisdom that “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. However, this is the challenge that the aspirants of forming federal and respective provincial governments accepted. Now is the time to deliver on that challenge.

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri, "How to tackle food insecurity," The News. 2024-02-16.
Keywords: Economics , Economic stability , Economic meltdown , Exporter , Revenue , Pakistan , FAO