World Food Day, observed earlier this month, is an annual reminder of the importance of food security and the collective efforts that the global community should undertake to reduce the menace of poverty and hunger. There are three pillars of food security, i.e., food availability, socio-economic access to food, and food utilisation. Till the recent past, the focus of our policymakers has been on enhancing agricultural production, which compromised the goals of access to food and food utilisation.
According to a study carried out by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the national food security and research ministry, titled “Food Security Analysis 2013” (FSA 2013), food availability in Pakistan has improved at the macro level during the last five years. During this period, Pakistan has emerged as a surplus wheat-producing country, with its production of rice and maize also increasing. However, there are significant geographic disparities in food production. While areas in Punjab are considered the breadbasket of the country, in Balochistan and Fata local production is far from adequate to meet the needs of the population.
Even in food surplus districts, socio-economic access to food is restricted by income level. Poverty is often the root cause of food insecurity because poor households lack the resources to access enough nutritious food to live a healthy life. The FSA 2013 revealed that more than half of households in Pakistan derive their main income from informal, insecure, low-earning livelihoods. The food security of poorer households is hit hardest by rising food prices. The casual wage labour rate has not kept up with the price increase of essential food items. This has led to a situation where half of the Pakistani population (50.6 per cent) is caloric energy deficient i.e., consumes less than adequate calories required for healthy living, with the situation in Gilgit-Baltistan, Fata, Balochistan and Sindh being quite serious.
Nationally speaking, only 26.6 per cent of the population has acceptable food consumption, whilst more than two-thirds are at the borderline level, meaning they are extremely vulnerable to any internal or external shock. About 40 per cent of households had experienced a shock since 2010 and 28 per cent reported that they had problems meeting basic food needs as a result, peaking at 42.8 per cent in Sindh followed by Fata and Balochistan. Price hikes followed by natural disasters and conflict were the main shocks experienced. Such shocks compel poor families to use coping mechanisms that further erode their resilience. Some 24.2 per cent reported that women were consuming less in order to feed children or male family members — an expression of intra-household discrepancy in food access. Around five per cent of households resorted to consuming seed stocks reserved for the next planting season, selling productive assets and removing children from school.
There is a link between household food security status and education levels of the household head. Better educated women with more knowledge of nutrients, food preparation and hygiene are more likely to improve the nutritional situation of their families. Around 77.1 per cent of women surveyed for the FSA 2013 had no education compared with 43 per cent of male heads of households. The figure rises to 83.3 per cent of women in rural areas.
The challenge of food insecurity is huge and requires out-of-the-box interventions. Efforts to address food insecurity and under-nutrition require addressing the social, economic, educational, agricultural, political and security dimensions at all levels. In the short to medium term, continued efforts to ensure sustained food availability, a dedicated focus on social sector services to improve food utilisation and effective social safety nets are required to take care of our energy caloric deficient population. In the long run, a change in paradigm, where food insecurity is considered a security threat, is required.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 27th, 2014.