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The hunger games

The statement that hunger has reached crisis proportions in Pakistan may come as a surprise to anyone eating at a plush restaurant or walking down the well-stocked aisle of an upscale supermarket. However, according to a national nutrition survey carried out in 2013, nearly 58pc of all Pakistani households — one out of every two — are food insecure, whilst according to a demographic and health survey for the year 2012-2013, malnutrition is also widespread and 24pc of Pakistani children under the age of five — one out of four — exhibit ‘severely stunted growth’. Although Sindh, particularly in the region of Tharparkar, is the hardest hit, the hunger problem is by no means confined to any one area.

The reality is that as citizens of a developing country the threat of hunger and thirst looms large over all our heads, regardless of our economic or social status. Agriculture-intensive countries like Pakistan often compete with each other to sell unprocessed raw materials in the international market in order to purchase end products from it. However, in doing so, these countries take a double hit: they receive a low price for their raw materials and pay a far greater one for the end products, as well as accepting unfair, even exploitative terms along the way just for the opportunity of being included in the global food chain.

As citizens of a developing country the threat of hunger and thirst looms large over all our heads. Price disparity, however, is not the only adverse impact of the integrated food chain. Developing countries consider themselves ‘lucky’ when they hire out their farms to international contractors. But this means that they grow crops using seeds supplied by the contractors and according to their policies and specifications. This leads not only to a decrease in crop variety but also in the utility of the land, which can no longer be rotated seasonally amongst different crops. The situation is compounded by the fact that international contractors protect their seeds with onerous intellectual property conditions, and thereby tie up farmers, and the country as a whole, in a recurrent cycle of dependency.

Such was the imbalance created by these policies that at the turn of the millennium, there were nearly 1,000 million undernourished people in the world. Consequently, reducing the rate of hunger by half in 15 years was adopted as the first Millennium Development Goal. However, according to a 2015 report titled The State of Food Insecurity in the World, published inter alia by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), 795 million people still remain undernourished globally. And this was not due to low food production but due to the inability of countries to provide proper access to food to their citizens. It is perhaps no surprise that the report listed Pakistan as one of the countries that had particularly lagged behind in this regard.

What exactly are Pakistan’s obligations? Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1976 and the Rights of the Child 1990 all of which emphasise an individual’s right to available, accessible and adequate nutrition, which means the provision of food as well as water. In 2004, Pakistan also adopted Voluntary Guidelines for the Progressive Realisation of the Right to Adequate Food which included obligations to protect sources of food from destruction and environmental damage, ensuring that food in the market is safe and nutritious, developing and enforcing food quality and safety standards and ensuring fair and equal market practices.

Pakistan has a number of laws in place to fulfil these requirements: Article 38(d) of the Constitution of Pakistan protects the right to food for citizens; the Pure Foods Ordinance, 1960, deals with the preparation and sale of foods; the Pakistan Hotels and Restaurant Act 1976, regulates the services provided by hotels and restaurants; the Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority Act 1996 provides for the inspection and testing inter alia of food items for their quality, specification and characteristics and the Competition Act 2010 deals with anti-competitive market practices. However, whilst some of these laws are behind times, none of them have been enforced either adequately or consistently.

If Pakistan is struggling to understand what it may do, it may look to Bangladesh, which is the only South Asian country that has achieved a significant measure of food security in recent years in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. A 2010 study carried out by the World Bank, cited five factors that had contributed to Bangladesh’s success: adoption of coordinated policies in agriculture, nutrition and health, education, gender, water, sanitation, housing, pro-poor economic development and trade; a multi-phased implementation programme with short- and long-term goals; establishment of monitoring institutions; commitment of adequate resources and continued financial investment and, most importantly, the support of civil society.

The role played by civil society is directly relevant to all of us in our individual capacity. We can seek information about the quality of food; lodge complaints if food quality is low, if food products are being sold with incorrect or inadequate labelling or under unhygienic conditions, and support local products by buying from vendors rather than from supermarkets and by preferring Pakistani food brands to foreign ones. Most importantly, in the privacy of our homes, we can take measures to prevent the waste of water.

The UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food states, rather eloquently, that, “[t]he human right to adequate food provides a signpost. It obliges us to pay attention to the situation of the most marginalised and vulnerable”. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to remember that in this scenario we are the vulnerable.

The writer is a barrister and an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. amber.darr@gmail.com

Amber Darr, "The hunger games," Dawn. 2016-04-04.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Seeds supply , Cultural Rights , Human rights , Environmental issues , Economic rights , Economic development , Social rights , World Bank , Quality control , Civil society , Pakistan , Bangladesh