PAKISTAN has faced a rising food crisis for the last three years, and global price hikes could worsen the situation, warns UN agency IRIN.
‘Given the predictions for lower global production of cereal crops this year, there is likely to be a global hike in prices that will affect Pakistan,’ said Amjad Jamal, spokesperson for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Pakistan.
‘Due to the massive floods of 2010 followed by further flooding in 2011, rising food prices, energy shortages and continuing conflict in parts of the country, the food security situation has worsened since 2009.’
WFP noted in its market survey for August that wheat prices in Pakistan have only gone up slightly, poultry prices have increased significantly, and gram pulse prices have risen 55 per cent in a year.
Water shortages in some areas are also affecting food production: ‘A lack of water this year has affected the maize and cotton seed crop, used as animal feed, and the 2012 monsoon has brought low rainfall (affecting vegetable prices),’ explained Muhammad Ibrahim Mughul, chairman of the Agri Forum of Pakistan which represents farmers.
High food prices are driving more people to seek food handouts from charitable organisations.
‘There is a vast growth in the numbers that turn up at our free feeding centres – I would say a 40 per cent increase this year alone and each year since 2009 or so,’ said Anwar Kazmi, spokesman for the Edhi Foundation. The charitable Foundation, the largest in the country, provides free food to thousands daily.
Kazmi added: ‘Due to inflation even the middle class now come to us to get food.’
The cost of food items rose by 9.8 per cent between March 2011 and March 2012 while non-food items went up 11.5 per cent over the same period, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics Consumer Price Index.
The poor have been hit hardest. Even if food is available in the markets, not everyone can afford it.
The WFP’s Jamal stressed: ‘The poor’s purchasing power is already low and they may not be able to meet their dietary needs, or may have to reduce spending on other essential needs such as health and education.’
Among the poorest of the poor are internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there is a funding gap of US$21m for food security operations in these areas for the rest of the year, affecting 1.2 million IDPs.
Another vulnerable group are some three million Afghan refugees.
The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, in its 2011 Global Hunger Index said the hunger situation in Pakistan remained ‘alarming’.
The index is based on three factors: malnutrition, child underweight levels and child mortality. The index also notes that hunger in Pakistan has grown over the last decade.
In an April 2012 report the country’s Central Bank said that 37 per cent of the urban population were food insecure, and warned the government to ‘reduce the risk of a severe hunger-like situation.’
While experts are still assessing the situation, those who already have too little food say they are ‘not interested’ in new studies.
‘All I know is that we live only on what we find on rubbish heaps,’ said Sharifan Bibi, 40, a widow who sifts through the giant garbage heaps strewn along the railway line.
‘My children and I scavenge daily, sell items that can bring in money such as bottles or iron scrap, and take home what rotten vegetables, discarded “roti” (flat bread) or other edibles we can find to make up our dinner.’
She says she has no other way to feed herself and her five children, and only wants to know what the government is doing to ‘help people like us’.
Despite efforts by the Pakistani government and international organisations, inflation, declining income, natural disasters and stagnating domestic productivity are hampering attempts to achieve food security for the country’s 180 million citizens.
More than half of households are food insecure, according to the last major national nutrition survey.
The prices of staple grains like wheat and rice have been stable but are significantly higher than 2011, according to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) October 2012 Global Food Security Update.
A 25 per cent rise in fuel prices has also pushed up the price of food, as it becomes increasingly expensive to transport.
WFP says rising food prices in international markets recently may also lead to more price hikes in Pakistan.
Efforts have to be made to increase production, but in Pakistan, the problem of food security is mainly a problem of access.
Over the last couple of years, Pakistan has officially been a food surplus country in terms of cereal production, says Krishna Pahari, head of WFP’s Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping unit in Islamabad.
But many households here don’t have access to that food. Many are marginal, deficit, subsistence farmers whose own production is not enough to meet their needs. Such farmers have to buy food from the market because of insufficient production.
Despite the concerns of officials and experts, some believe that because Pakistan’s primary food security issue is access, there are ways to handle it, says the UN.
This also provides an opportunity, says Pahari. It means that in terms of the national food situation, maybe Pakistan is OK. With good management, and by putting mechanisms in place to improve access, there is potential to ensure food security.
Agriculture is the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy, contributing 21 per cent of the country’s GDP and employing 45 per cent of the labour force. The lack of innovation and a failure to increase efficiency at farms across Pakistan, however, has led to stagnant productivity.
In 1999, production per acre of wheat was 1,040-1,090kg. The population has increased in the last 13 years, but production per acre for wheat today is the same, said Ibrahim Mughal, chairman of the Pakistan Agri Forum.
Many farms employ antiquated farming methods, and the inefficient use of water also contributes to poor productivity.
Water availability in Pakistan, where a large percentage of agriculture relies on irrigation, has been dwindling. Experts say if water is not utilised more efficiently, production is likely to decline, and could dramatically impact food security.
The failure to boost domestic productivity has meant an increasing burden on what is harvested, with Pakistan’s population growing at the fastest rate in South Asia.
Poor economic performance over the last five years means millions of Pakistanis have less to spend on increasingly expensive food.
Rising global grain prices have also adversely affected food security in Pakistan.
International prices have gone up, but on the domestic level, farmers are getting a lower procurement price. So they’re not interested and may shift to other crops, warned Mughal.
That the food security situation is very serious overall is reflected in the very poor, very serious nutrition outcomes, says WFP’s Pahari. ‘If we look at the number of children with low weight for their height, the rate in Pakistan is 15.1 per cent for children under five. Any value above 15 is considered an emergency level by the WHO.’