Is Pakistan’s food security under threat?

Is Pakistan’s food security under threat?

  • The country is not used to dangers to its food

By: Younus Sandeela

Blessed with a huge agricultural base, Pakistan has always been a food-surplus country, However, factors like climate change, diminishing water resources, and failure to build the country’s agriculture on modern lines; are causing this advantage to erode rapidly. And for a country with a population of 200 million-plus, unexpected food shortage could be a catastrophe in the waiting. The worst part is that the government seems oblivious to the real impact on the economy and wellbeing of people should things on the food security front get worse unexpectedly.

For a country having an agricultural potential as big as Pakistan’s, it is simply shameful to be worrying about food security. Pakistan, with its rich agriculture and strategic geographic location, actually has the potential of becoming the food basket for the entire region. However, due to a weak focus on agriculture, misplaced economic priorities and mismanagement of resources; the country has failed to fully exploit even the neighbouring Middle East, the world’s most food-deficient, but highly affluent, region.

Reports about the build-up of locust swarms in Pakistan’s desert regions is the latest threat to agriculture in the country, particularly in Sindh and Punjab, the main food-producing provinces. So far, the government has made only lukewarm efforts to safeguard against the impending threat. The apparent lack of preparedness on the part of the government is scary. Those who understand agriculture know the devastation this could cause to agriculture and as a result to national food security. However, the unwelcomed locusts are not the only problem faced by agriculture in Pakistan.

the real food availability could actually be less than reported in the official data. In such a situation, the impact of any unexpected disruption in food supply could be far more severe than anticipated

The advantage of Pakistan’s large and diversified agricultural base is, to a large extent, nullified by poor yields; inconsistent government policies; a disengaged private sector; and poor storage facilities. It is assumed that 15 percent produce in the case of grain crops, and as much as 40 percent in the case of horticulture crops, is wasted at the postharvest stage due to insufficient transportation and storage facilities. It is ironic that a country with production volumes as high as 25 million metric tons for wheat and 7.5 million metric tons for rice seriously lacks modern storage facilities. The country badly needed to invest in building silos and cold chains. Innovative business models could have been easily developed to attract private investment into the warehousing sector. Reserve stocks of staple foods like wheat and rice should be built to meet the domestic needs for a minimum of three years. Instead, reserves are generally built only for the ongoing year. This is partly because of limited availability of storage space and partly because of the confidence that the fresh crop of the following year would replenish the stocks in time to ensure uninterrupted supply.

Improving yields through mechanization; quality farm inputs; capacity building of farmers; and seamless availability of finance at the grass root level, are the easiest ways to improve food supply in the country. There is also scope for increasing food production through unconventional sectors like the fisheries. Deep-sea cage culture has, so far, remained unexploited in Pakistan. The country’s continental shelf, as well as its water reservoirs, offer immense opportunities for developing cage aquaculture. Similarly, opportunity exists in expanding production volumes within the inland fisheries sector by promoting fish culture beyond the existing carp farming, and by educating fish farmers on intensive and semi-intensive fish culture. Promoting higher consumption of fish in the society that is predominantly skewed towards consumption of red meat would not only bring about health dividends but would also relieve pressure from the overburdened livestock sector.

Historically, Pakistan has been a water-rich country. Even now mismanagement, and not non-availability of water, is the main problem. Luckily, the country has been receiving abundant rains and snowfall during the last two years which helped it to overcome the precarious water situation that existed couple of years back. Limited water storage capacity is a problem that cannot be resolved in the immediate term. It will take many years and huge financial disbursements for the country to build new reservoirs. However, effective and efficient management of country’s existing irrigation system can be achieved almost immediately and without further burdening country’s already weak financial position.

Just ensuring regular and proper de-silting of canals would drastically improve water distribution. Similarly, timely and effective maintenance of canal banks would restrict seepage of water and also contain incidents of canal breaches during high floods. Lastly, restoring the largely dysfunctional SCARP tubewells and shifting them on to solar power could also bring about significant improvement in the water situation. These and similar measures, if carried out in timely manner, would keep the food situation from getting worse due to water shortages.

Traditionally, the size of Pakistan’s agriculture managed to work as an effective shock absorber in the face of unfavourable circumstances. This however, may not work in future as newer and bigger challenges in the form of climate change, water shortages and deteriorating soils may cause damage which size alone may not be able to compensate for. Unless climate-smart agriculture practices are introduced on war footings, Pakistan may soon experience food deficiency, something the nation is not used to be worrying about.

Reliability of data with respect to agricultural production is also a major source of concern. Livestock is an example where official data is feared to be misleading. Failure to regularly carry out a real-time livestock census simultaneously across the country and limitations in keeping track of cattle movements through an electronic-tagging mechanism seriously limits the reliability of available data. Also, market conditions with particular reference to continuously rising milk and meat prices contradict the official claim about the huge livestock population in the country. Reports of unchecked smuggling of livestock through the country’s western borders and indiscriminate slaughtering of young calves that took place unhindered over decades, also gives rise to scepticism about a large livestock population in the country. Similarly, crop-reporting departments generally lack scientific methodologies for accumulating and disseminating data which results in weak reliance on the numbers presented by the government. All this adds to the worry as the real food availability could actually be less than reported in the official data. In such a situation, the impact of any unexpected disruption in food supply could be far more severe than anticipated.

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