Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Food security in great peril

By M. Zafar Haider Jappa

The recent emergence of food insecurity hit hard the whole developing world in general and the South Asian states in particular. Food security is a human right of every citizen. The UNís Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines it as, ìaccess by all people at all times to the food needed for an active and healthy life.î The most recent crucial event on food security was held in Rome one month before the climate summit. Like the Copenhagen Climate Accord of December 2009, the World Food Summit held in November 2009 faced a serious blow when the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) failed to win a clear pledge from the industrialised nations to commit $44 billion a year to help poor nations overcome food shortage.

According to the Food Security Risk Index, USA, France, Canada and Germany are top most secure in food production and distribution. On the contrary, Angola, Haiti, Mozambique, Congo and Zimbabwe happen to be the most insecure in food production. In recent past food situation started deteriorating in 2003 when the world commodity market registered a shortfall in grain up to 105 million tons. In 2007-08 wheat nosedived to a shortfall of 16 million metric tons alone, owing to a shift in the priorities of the worldís leading producers of wheat like USA, Australia and Canada in favour of maize to meet bio-fuel needs.

A sharp spike in food prices sparked riots in some 60 countries with varying intensity and widespread hoarding. The food scarcity also prompted rich food importing countries, like Saudi Arabia to snap up farmland in developing countries to meet future food needs.

Although article 38 of the Constitution of Pakistan explicitly guarantees the right of food to the people, however it has attracted little attention of the policy makers since its promulgation. The abrupt spike in the prices of food items in the wake of 2008 clearly exposed one fact that Pakistan will never meet the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) within the time limit. The situation in the other South Asian economies is also not so different. Poverty is rather compounding and the plight of the vulnerable segments of the society is painting things worse. WFP has revealed that during the year which ended in March 2009, the number of persons deemed insecure had risen to 77 million from 60 million in the previous year. Prior to the recent food shortage, only Pakistan was the net food importing developing country (NFIDC) in the whole South Asia as per the data of World Trade Organisation (WTO). Now except Bhutan all other economies of the region fall in the category of NFIDCs. Sri Lanka has been listed as one of the ìhungerís global hotspotsî by the WFP although it has a high literacy rate, low unemployment level and modernisation of farming sector. Other hotspots include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Chad, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

In Pakistan wheat and rice are the two main food crops. Since we have no exact figure of the total population of the country, hence actual requirement of the country against both these items cannot be ascertained. This is the reason we are just following guess work to quantify and identity national targets for food production. Except 2000-04, Pakistan has been importing wheat. Wheat is lost while harvesting, threshing, cleaning, drying, milling, storage, processing, cooking and consumption. Although owing to some inbred problems in decision making and implementation, achieving food self-suffice is next to impossible in Pakistan in future, but it can be materialised by taking some innovative steps. We will have to determine the bare minimum area for food cultivation before the construction mafia swallows the whole fertile grassland of the country. Poverty is widely distributed in the many mountainous parts of the country where communities are small and scattered. The rugged terrain, fragile ecosystems, and a recent scourge of climate change make cultivation difficult. Lack of access to services, markets and innovative means have contributed to chronic poverty in these areas. Owing to the spillover effect it has affected the rural way of life and compelled urban migration.

According to the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), a majority of rural people in Pakistan are poor because of unequal land distribution. A few large landholders own a disproportionate amount of land. More than 4 million family farms have plots of less than 5 hectares, and 25 per cent of all farms consist of less than 1 hectare. At present about 50 per cent of farmers own and operate their farms, while 26 per cent are tenants. Sharecroppers who work on lands belonging to large-scale farmers, are often in debt to their employers.

WFP undertook two exercises to measure the level of food security in Pakistan, once in 1998 and then in 2003. The worrying fact was that the rural population in food surplus provinces was found insecure owing to population pressure and resultant rise in food items. The situation was aggravated by the post harvest losses.

FAO (2009) suggests, for all the economies of South Asia, the share of agricultural sector in their GDPs has steadily declined since 1990. For the period of 1985-2005, the average annual rate of growth of yields of cereals in South Asia has been increased at decreasing rates except for Pakistan. It was ñ1.41 per cent in 1985 but soared to 3.98 per cent in 2005. For India it was 4.17 per cent in 1985 that reduced to .63 per cent in 2005. This enlightens the change in governmentsí priorities over the time period. One of the main reasons is the massive diversion of fertile lands into construction activities, which has slowed down cereal production in the region.

In South Asia, India realised the importance much earlier when it disbanded feudal system in 1949 and in 1955 passed Essential Commodities Act by gaining control over production, supply and distribution of essential food goods to ensure fair distribution of food grains at reasonable prices.

In Pakistan, the Pakistan Agricultural Services and Supplies Corporation (PASSCO) was established in 1973 under the federal government and tasked to procure wheat and other agricultural commodities, determining support prices, ensuring adequate supplies in provinces deficit of food and maintaining strategic reserves in the country. Till 2006 India and Sri Lanka have been net exporters of food but owing to the adverse effects to its cropping patterns because of climate change might compel them to import food for the myriad millions in next 10-15 years.

It is vital for countries to cooperate in the following areas to overcome the chronic issue of food : (i) innovations in the development of new varieties, hybrids and breeds especially in cereal (ii) management of water and natural resources (iii) new methods such as remote sensing and Geographic Information System (GIS), biotechnology, weather and flood forecasting, disaster management(iv) technology exchange - exchange of germplasm; exchange of variety and breed, crop and animal husbandry practices (v) capacity building through development of human resources and regional facilities (vi) regional programmes for plant and animal trans-boundary pests and diseases control (vii) harmonisation of policies and actions like relating to protection of plant variety, bio-safety protocols, biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. (Vii) Minimising post harvest losses (ix) Indus Basin Treaty between Pakistan and India needs to be revisited. But this is only possible if India and Pakistan dispel their mutual fears cropped up of centuries old animosities and broken trust. In Pakistan, $179 million have been spent inclusive of government of Pakistanís contribution in food security. Furthermore, the USAID programmes have invested $134.4 million during 2008-09. USAID has been the largest contributor to provide food to the IDPs of Malakand, Bajour and Waziristan. The Planning Commission of Pakistan has recently reported that if the yield potential of the medium and small size farm sector is achieved, food shortage can be overcome and be converted into surplus. Poverty generates food insecurity. Poverty is spread by lack of education, poor political will, poor access to health services, fragile infrastructure, low level of regional integration and vulnerability to environmental degradation, and deterioration of the natural resource base. The ongoing international financial meltdown and climatic change have caused addition of almost 10 million people among vulnerable to the bare minimum food need and nutritional requirement. The FAO Director General Mr. Jacques Diouf expressed his views that ìhungry people are a serious potential source of conflict and forced migration. This scourge is not just a moral outrage and economic absurdity, but also represents a threat for our peace and security.î

Food importing countries, including Pakistan and India must be pragmatically cautious of such a scenario. Commitment like that presented by FD Roosevelt after the world economic depression needs to be replicated in this region as well, and now is the time to do so. On food security we can no longer afford sluggishness and a consistent public policy is a guaranteed solution.

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