Common Sense Approaches to A ‘Food Secure’ Pakistan

common-sense

An interesting advertisement appeared in the national press in mid-May 2008, seeking tenders for food supply in various prisons in Sindh. The benchmark was three meals of 150 grams wheat flour each on an average. Immediately one thought of the wheat crisis, as well as the food crisis, and the mind began to calculate.

Extrapolating Prison Nutritional Standards

By prison regulation standards, an adult male consumes 450 grams of wheat flour a day, as well as other accompanying foods. A research carried out by a Lahore-based NGO estimates that the average Pakistani household consumes 250 grams per person per day, which teeters precariously on the borders of mere subsistence.

By the World Health Organization’s standards, on the other hand, the nutritional needs justify a minimum of 350 grams plus per person to be consumed daily. Even if we estimate by the lowest prison-required figure of 250 grams per person, Pakistan would need 91.25 kilograms of wheat per person every year, or 15.06 million tonnes of the commodity. By prison regulation standards, presuming women and children eat less, we would need at least 27.11 million tonnes. The use of this simple calculation shows that Pakistan, in the year 2008, is short of wheat by almost 3.5 million tonnes, the official version not withstanding.

Efficiency or Starvation

But to cut a long story short, food will consume an increasingly greater portion of a Pakistani family’s budget in the years to come.

This is a fact that propels one to look into the future. What should Pakistan do? We are an endowed land, with good soil, enough water if we use it sensibly, human skills to produce any food we need, and a population whose size ensures that the demand for such produce interests farmers to grow more food.

If we assume that we have no new lands to plough, then there is an immediate need to increase the yield per acre. For the same inputs, a quantum jump is the ‘one and only’ solution.

A ‘Quality Green Revolution’ is needed. But as simple as this assertion might seem, in order to actually achieve such a state calls for immense effort, and will-power. We need to examine our agricultural practices and stop deluding ourselves into believing that we are efficient.

United Nations’ figures rate us as among the least efficient. Even if we can match the result that the Indian Punjab manages – with the same soil, people, water, etc.,- we are destined to improve our lot. If we do not, we will starve. It is as simple as that.

The Solution Quadrangle

The solution lies in four mutually-aimed directions: to learn better agricultural practices; to tackle the prices of agricultural inputs; to put into place a first rate food distribution system; and to work exceptionally creatively on ensuring that the supply of water reaches all farmers, and on time.

A ‘Quality Green Revolution’ is needed. But as simple as this assertion might seem, in order to actually achieve such a state calls for immense effort, and will-power

Quad Direction 1: Agri-practice Improvement

There is no doubt that the average Pakistani farmer is keen to adopt any new methodologies that increase his, or as is often the case, her output per acre. But with the crumbling agriculture extension services of the provincial governments, practically no assistance, guidance, or even advice is available. Such assistance played a major role in the 1960s when the so-called ‘green revolution’ unfolded in Pakistan.

It would not be asking for too much if with better agricultural practices, outputs could be increased by at least 50 percent assuming that the acreage under cultivation remains the same.

By merely ensuring proper weeding, it is a known fact that outputs rise dramatically. But then the changing social ethos has prevented women from undertaking this task. In Punjab, if one was to observe the fields of different tribes such as the ‘Meo’ family to that of a ‘Jat’, both standing next to one another, it is a known fact that the Meo family’s output is almost 50 percent more than the ‘Jat’ family’s. The reason is simple. Meo women work hard all year round to weed the fields and ensure that the crop makes full use of the nutrients in the soil. They are just simply better farmers.

To further explain this point, the reader is welcome to visit the Pakistan-India border fence and observe the wheat crop on both sides of the border. The average Pakistani yield is 22.475 maunds of wheat per acre, according to a survey of Pakistan in 2005, while the Indian official average wheat yield is 41.235 maunds per acre, as stated in the Indian Institute of Agriculture Sciences publication (June, 2007).

No Solution Without our True Centres of Learning

The Indian agricultural scientist has to spend a number of years in the field, living and working with farmers, teaching him skills and understanding his problems. In Pakistan, a Ph.D. in agriculture normally means a cushy, ivory tower job with no fieldwork. This assertion may be a bit off the mark, but broadly this is the state of Pakistani agricultural sciences.

But there is still hope. Take, for example, the Centre for Excellence in Molecular Sciences at the Punjab University. This organization has the ability to teach and set up centres to produce virus-free plants using tissue culture technology, in every district of Punjab. Almost twenty years ago, the Indians adopted this route with considerable assistance for Israel. To any pragmatist it makes sense for Pakistan to seek the assistance of these two countries, hostile as they may seem to our national security. But then the age of such dispensation is over, hopefully – forever, and the poor of this country will be better fed if we just ‘stooped to learn’ from their experiences.

Passively Awaiting the Green Revolution?

Like the ‘broiler’ revolution in chicken meat, Pakistan awaits the greenhouse revolution. The possibilities in this learning game are endless. Greenhouses, for instance, mean that even desert-like lands can produce ten times as much as our current per plant produce. But if we stick to simple matters like better outputs from the existing inputs with better agricultural practices, Pakistan can easily be a ‘food secure’ country.

Quad Direction 2: Agri-Inputs

The second action needed is to ensure that all the inputs like seeds, water, transportation and fertilisers are supplied at the correct price and on time. For this the government must take considerable responsibility and not leave everything to the open market.

It is the only real onus, and the ‘social responsibility’ of the government to work on ways, without resorting to heavy subsidies, to supply farmers with quality inputs. This is critical to the future of Pakistani agriculture, for only with the correct mix of measures will adequate food be available to its people.

Quad Direction 3: Distribution!

The third, and probably the most important factor, is to tackle, on a war footing, the distribution of agricultural produce. This is where the public sector must rise again. If one modern storage silo caters for a population of 500,000 persons, this means that each storage silo will need only 125 tonnes to feed the entire population every day, or 12,000 tonnes to take care of everyone for three months. A standard silo to store 25,000 tonnes will mean food for everyone for half the year. This can be achieved easily.

The fact is that a similar system already exists and the provincial governments claim to run it, but with very corrupt officials.

Like the ‘broiler’ revolution in chicken meat, Pakistan awaits the greenhouse revolution. The possibilities in this learning game are endless

We know from the immensely important research of the Nobel Prize winner, Dr. A. Sen, that famines have always been the result of bad distribution. So it makes sense to tackle this problem. Supply has to be graduated and on a daily basis, its selling outlets contained within a given area, and its selling price has to be controlled through the retail system.

That is why rationing seems to be the preferred option. But when the entire country needs just 330 storage facilities, it makes sense for the private sector to invest in these silos, as well as the milling facilities. Monitoring outflows from 330 facilities is possible, and this will definitely prevent any famine coming to this country. There is just no reason Pakistan should have famine-like conditions, save for bad governance.

Quad Direction 4: Water, Water Everywhere…

Lastly, there is the problem of the supply of water. Pakistan has an excellent canal system. Besides these, there is a need for more and more reservoirs. Consider, for example, the River Ravi, dry that it is. Its ‘bunds’ on both sides could store water, and this would make the underground water level rise. All along rivers and besides them, reservoirs are needed. This is not a high-technology undertaking, and it will also not run into problems with provincial water disputes. Surely even remote parts of Balouchistan can have reservoirs using storm water and other such flows.

All these are simple steps – but require robust governance. With better agricultural practices, agriculture technologies, better storage and distribution of crops, better water supply and cheaper, reliable and timely inputs, Pakistan can indeed has full potential to be a ‘food secure’ country.

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    Author Information

    Majid Sheikh has been working as a journalist since 1971, in major newspapers in Pakistan and England. He is also a management consultant and Marketing Research specialist. His first book 'Lahore: Tales without end' is a collection of his pices that are published in the Daily Dawn.

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