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Pakistan: Battling to feed hungry mouths

AMONG other goals, the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set ambitious targets for the international community to halve the prevalence of hunger in the world by 2015. Unfortunately, progress in the developing countries toward achieving this target has been dismal. On the back of UN’s “Think, Eat, Save” initiative, there has been renewed focus on global food security and waste in different stages of the food production and consumption systems.
Pakistan, another underdeveloped and highly populous Asian country, has also struggled in reducing hunger and undernourishment from its society. The country has also lagged behind in its target of eradicating extreme poverty, which makes the MDG’s a far-fetched dream. Life for the poor in Pakistan has only become tougher in recent years. The country has been adversely affected by political turmoil, corruption, unabated inflation, growing socioeconomic disparities and natural disasters. In the absence of a safety net, every third Pakistani is living below the poverty line and struggling to find his next meal.
Ironically, food security has remained a tricky issue for an agricultural country like Pakistan. Figures of Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) suggest that 67.7 percent and 61.2 percent of the population in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and Balochistan, respectively, face hunger and malnourishment. Generally speaking, food security is a multifaceted issue influenced by a variety of factors that include climate change, agricultural yield, structure of rural economy, population growth, fuel prices and political system, among others.
Recent natural disasters, including massive floods and earthquakes which affected at least 20 million, have also played havoc with Pakistan’s agricultural output. This has contributed to worsening of food security and adversely affected millions of poor in the country. Prof. Iqbal Choudhary, Director International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS), Karachi University (KU), is of the view that “there is dire need to promote biotech/GM crops, modified through biotechnology, as the proper use of biotechnology approach is vital for rapid agriculture development and healthcare in the country.” At the same time, there is need to devise a national agricultural strategy to improve productivity and introduce modern agricultural practices in the country.
According to Vaqar Ahmad from the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), “even five years from now, if all variables were to remain the same — that is, the speed of climate change, population growth rate, the political situation and so on — food insecurity in Pakistan will increase from the present 58 percent to 63-65 percent. The key assumption here is the low economic growth which, in turn, implies lesser prospects for pro-poor job creation.”
The country’s limited supply of food also comes under pressure because of an explosive population growth rate. With the government unable to provide enough jobs due to sluggish economic performance, this in turn prompts an increase in poverty, hunger and malnutrition. This places the future generations at risk because of stunted child growth and low resistance to diseases. Findings of a report by The Food and Agriculture Organization reveal that about 24 percent of Pakistan’s population is undernourished and deficient in protein, iron and other important body minerals. Poverty remains the root cause of the problem as the landless and poor sections of society are unable to afford expensive food items and survive on foods with low nutritional value. Trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, the underprivileged segments of society face widespread hunger and malnutrition, which limits their ability to make social and economic progress.
Subsequent governments in Pakistan have also been reluctant to implement land reforms in the country. This is largely because feudal landlords and other politicians, who form the ruling elite, own huge land holdings and are unwilling to take measures that would loosen their grip on the country’s political and economic landscape. It is important to understand that women form more than half of Pakistan’s population and remain the worst affected due to discrimination in land distribution and inequitable power distribution. By gaining access and control of land, women may be able to obtain legal and social justice. This has the potential to shift the balance of gender power within the home as equal attention would be given to the nourishment of females. However, considering Pakistan’s cultural roadblocks and social practices, such decisions remain delayed at the cost of undernourishment and hunger in a major section of society.
An alternative view is that Pakistan’s domestic output is sufficient feed everyone in the country. By aggressively confronting problems of poor governance, inadequate attention to agricultural research and modern farming practices, crumbling irrigation system and role of middlemen in the rural economy, Pakistan can achieve self-sufficiency in food. There is enough food to go around and feed everyone, but drastic improvements must be made in supply chain to reduce losses during distribution and storage of food.
The fact remains that food security situation in Pakistan is very serious and demands immediate corrective actions. To counter this problem, the authorities in Pakistan would be required to make tough social and economic decisions that challenge the status quo and provide support to the struggling sections of society.