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Pandemic-induced food insecurity: policy response

The general linchpin of the food security wheel intends to serve the locality by providing access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food in order to meet the calories intake. Here the prominent role of the government, both at the federal and provincial levels, remains indispensable. Unlike the wealthy nations, the governments in the under-developed world have been struggling to cope with the pandemic that has greatly engulfed the world’s poor. Same like, Pakistan is passing through challenging times to cope with the spread of virus and ensuring food accessibility as well as its un-paused distribution during the lockdown period. The lockdown has greatly hampered the Pakistani nation that already constitutes half (around 110m.) either poor or hungry. The situation further worsens as the lockdown has interrupted food production and (mainly) its supply. It has dragged the country to 11th position amongst 148 countries declared as ‘extremely risky’ on food insecurity risk index. According to United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), ‘more than 20% Pakistan’s population is undernourished, and nearly 4% of the children younger than five are stunted. Thus, Covid-19 is proved to be a distressing blow to already destabilized food security situations in the country, stretched across three dimensions of food un-availability, inaccessibility and non-utilization.

Dimensions of food insecurity

According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), almost 75% of Pakistan’s export is in agricultural sector with last year growth of 22.7%, which is now greatly hampered by Covid-19. The current pandemic is acting as a stressor to the national economy. It is causing food unavailability due to prevailing instability in the agricultural sector. The vulnerability due to instability in crop production, food supply to local markets and proper storage, crumbled by energy shortages in the summer times are resulting in severe food insecurity issues, especially in the far-flung areas of the country. Covid-19 has added up to 2.45 million people to the existing 40 million who suffer from food insecurity in Pakistan, according to the UN 1.7 million tonnes of mango annually exported from Pakistan to more than 50 countries is at risk due to border closure. Prices of unstable and farmers are forced to sell at low fixed rates to government with prices cut down to almost 1/3rd for farmers. Thus, these issues may halt Pakistan’s goal to reduce food insecurity by 50% by 2030.

The major cause of global hunger and malnutrition is not linked only to food scarcity. It is indeed ‘access failure’ to fulfill the food needs. This access to safe food is a major deterrent due to declining incomes. In Pakistan, more than half of the families earn their livelihood from the informal sector; they don’t have secure means of subsistence and sufficient income to live decently. The issue has pushed more families in (absolute) poverty in last 4 months with almost over 40% are living below poverty line during the Covid-19 breakout. Further, sudden oil price spikes have raised food prices. The scenario has hardened the earning and consumption patterns to have access to required food items in these pressing times. It is further hampered as net food trades have declined once exports and imports were restricted due to lockdown. The closure and restrictions in the informal and localised (vegetables and fruits) markets contributed to degrading the scenario, where Covid-19 did not let-off the food accessibility.

In the debate, Food utilization commends the intake of nutrients to meet the sufficient energy needs to stay healthy and function effectively in a society. Whereas, feeding practices, food preparation, diversity of diet, and intra-household distribution of food and consumption are factors that impact the utilization of food. The decreased access and affordability of food items from poor households are causing malnutrition, hunger, and under-nutrition amongst the already food insecure inhabitants. The national scenario is presenting a high probability of being under-nourished, if not hungered, to combat Covid-19.

Response

Pakistan has since long been formulating policies to reduce the food insecurity issues by addressing all the three components halting the food security goals. For these targets, several policy actions have been taken; these include farm input subsidies, price support to farmers through procurement, targeted rural income support, consumer food subsidy, food aid, food price controls, unemployment benefits, import waiver, financial support for food companies, to name some. Moreover, to reduce the deaths related to hunger, the incumbent government has adapted the strategy of partial lockdown and allocated PKR. 50 billion in relief packages for the agriculture sector. Likewise, wheat procurement is being targeted to be raised from to 4.25 m. MT. to 8.25 m. MT. (double), compared from last year on 18th April. To cater to job losses, BISP/Ehsaas relief scheme has spent PKR. 91 b. in providing 12000/household to around 7.5 million. families across the country, to raise their food affordability. For food accessibility, the government has promulgated an ordinance on hoarding of 32 essential food items. To further ensure food security and accessibility of food, PKR. 50 billion is pledged to Utility Stores Corporation for providing essential food items at subsidized rates, which is coupled with subsidization of the food items. Food aid programmes are allowing charities and Langar Khanas to directly donate food to needy people. Other than that, exports of all edible items have been banned to ensure more availability of food in the country.

The long-term effectiveness of the policies, programmes, plans and subsidies, however, is yet to be determined. Yet, the short evaluations are hinting at, i) Poor households’ lack of awareness of benefits from government relief programs, ii) The fear of second wave of Covid-19 is an impediment to availing the option, iii) Lack of proper monitoring could lead to possible political and religious/ethnic manipulations of the subsidies and funds, iv) Lack of personal contacts and connections to funds distributes (especially, under Ehsaas programme) could limit the extension of financial help to needy people, v) The victims of situational poverty (seldom to identify) could be overlooked, vi) Influence of local elites (like, after 2005 EQ) could spur resource hijack, vi) Rising unemployment and lack of alternative solutions from the government could further increase absolute rural poverty. Keeping this in view, there is dire need to devise and execute an effective monitoring and evaluation mechanism to attain the desired results

Dr Umer Khayyam and Ramsha Munir, "Pandemic-induced food insecurity: policy response," Business Recorder. 2020-09-30.
Keywords: Social science , Pakistan export , National economy , Ehsaas programme , Ramsha Munir , Pakistan , FAO

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