Food insecurity in Pakistan

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri
Saturday, Mar 18, 2023

The World Food Programme (WFP), run under the auspices of the United Nations, has recently designated hunger as the new normal. Its recently published Global Operational Response Plan 2022 warns that the world is confronting the most significant food crisis in modern history, which might make a staggering 345.2 million people food insecure in 2023. This number will be more than double the number of people who face food insecurity in 2020.

This ‘new normal’ has its origin in a triple-C crisis: the ongoing conflict in Ukraine which has pushed the global food and fuel prices soaring, the low agricultural yields (and reduced purchasing power) resulting from climate change, and the aftershocks of supply chain disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The WFP has highlighted all three factors – as well as an increase in the cost of obtaining bank loans, deterioration of macro-economic indicators in most countries across the world, and unsustainable amount of debt which is affecting not just advanced economies such as that of the United States but also developing economies such as Pakistan’s – and cautioned that the level of food insecurity could escalate in several countries, including Sri Lanka, Ghana, Pakistan, Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya, and Laos.

In the case of Pakistan, the number of people susceptible to food insecurity runs into millions. Already, the floods that ravaged Pakistan last summer are believed to have propelled between 8.4 million and 9.1 million people into the abyss of poverty. Even before the floods, according to the National Socio-Economic Registry of Benazir Income Support Program, 25.5 million families consisting of 153 million individuals, subsisted on a meagre monthly income of Rs37,000 or less. Converting this amount into dollars (at Rs280 to a dollar) shows that their income has been a paltry $132 a month or 0.73 US cents per person per day. These statistics paint a scary socio-economic picture: two-thirds of Pakistan’s population has had less than three-quarters of a US dollar to spend each day.

The negative impact of inflation – whether headline inflation (which includes food and fuel prices) or core inflation (that excludes food and fuel prices) – on this segment of the population cannot be overstated. Inflation, admittedly, affects all and sundry in an economy since it negatively impacts many critically important economic factors such as interest rates, consumer spending and the currency’s value which, in turn, have severe impacts on investment, economic growth and job creation.

However, low-income groups are disproportionately hit by inflation. This is mainly because their consumption is devoted primarily to basic food necessities and is, therefore, inelastic (that is, it cannot be curtailed quickly). The soaring food prices, thus, leave them with little money to take care of the education and healthcare of their family.

Let me explain.

The last Household Integrated Economic Survey (HIES) conducted by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics in 2018-19 states that expenses on food by a household in Pakistan on average account for around 37 per cent of its monthly expenditure but this average hides the fact that food expenses range from 40 to 50 per cent for lower-income households. With food prices surging and the rupee losing its value, the purchasing power of low-income households has diminished significantly so many of them are either compromising on their food or unable to pay for education and healthcare.

This vulnerable economic situation could easily exacerbate Pakistan’s already fragile state of food security. The fact that a five per cent increase in global food prices heightens the risk of wasting among children (that is, weighing less than their height suggests) by nearly nine per cent means that several million more Pakistani children could become wasted than their existing number (five million) this year because of the very high food inflation in the country. Similarly, the number of stunted children (shorter than their age suggests) could also surpass its current level of 12 million for the same reason as mentioned above.

This is undoubtedly a distressing predicament for Pakistan’s people and government. The government is currently grappling with several macroeconomic problems, including a severe debt crisis and high fiscal and current account deficits, so it has limited capacity to address such micro-economic issues as food security.

This, however, does not mean that the government was really concerned about food security when the macroeconomic indicators were better than they are today. In fact, it can also be argued that successive governments have compounded the food insecurity crisis with their misplaced priorities, particularly their failure to address the worsening water crisis, inability to regulate the quality and prices of agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilisers and pesticides etc, and inability to bring cultivable barren lands under cultivation.

They also provided generalized, rather than targeted, subsidies to appease and please their political backers. The payment of these subsidies (along with many of the mega infrastructure development projects), however, was made possible through loans from other countries and multilateral forums such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which are increasingly less prepared to make similar loans for the present and the future, given Pakistan’s propensity to squander the borrowed money on misdirected policies.

But, even as the era of generalized subsidies is over, the transition to targeted subsidies remains quite slow. Therefore, high food inflation continues to hurt low-income households badly – aggravating hunger and creating a real risk of large-scale social and political unrest. Let us not forget that the ‘Arab Spring’ – an uprising that resulted in ousting of four presidents and a civil war in Syria and Libya was triggered by food inflation and the apathy of government officials in Tunisia.

So, what should the government do to address the conjoined problems of food inflation, hunger and public disorder?

The answer to this question is neither easy nor quick but there are sure signs that the failure to do something about it could easily generate serious existential threats to the polity as we know it today. So, the need to consider and resolve this problem has never been more urgent than it is today. This will require a concerted effort by the government at all levels – federal, provincial and local – in which all the stakeholders take their due part.

Targeted subsidies for low-income-earner consumers and producers of food will serve as first aid and are necessary until there is a sustainable plan to tackle the monster of hunger. In the medium term, we need to follow the practices of sustainable ‘food systems’ by embarking on an era of digital and precision agriculture and by promoting the principles of a ‘circular economy’. At the same time, discouraging hoarding and profiteering through good governance should be one of the primary functions of the government.

To remain focused on delivering on a pro-people agenda, political parties are required to start discussing and debating their policy differences through democratically elected forums of the parliament rather than pushing their partisan propaganda through non-democratic means. The superior judiciary should dedicate itself to the administration of justice to the ordinary citizens, leaving the political and economic spheres to politicians, civilian policymakers and businesspeople.

Civilian policymakers – bureaucrats – need to attend to the multiple socio-economic crises threatening to get out of hand instead of spending all their energies to please the ruling elite. Through technological superiority and resources, the provincial governments should be supported in turning the barren lands, especially Tharparkar, Thal, and Cholistan into cultivable areas.

Lastly, the intelligentsia and news media should shun their partisan agendas, narrow individual interests, and invest their human and financial resources in highlighting such public interest problems as food insecurity and hunger.

The time for all of us to act is now. Otherwise, it will be too late to avoid the law-and-order problems that the twin monsters of food insecurity and hunger can unleash.

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

He tweets @abidsuleri