Food Insecurity in Pakistan
In the last two years, many issues have arisen that threaten Pakistan’s ability to feed itself. Food insecurity exists in part because there have been continuing wheat and sugar crises.
The situation also looks set to worsen with the government proposal to lease land to other countries. As companies become increasingly responsible for food provision, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) gains significance. This article will examine the issue of food security in Pakistan followed by an analysis of the wheat, sugar and land leasing crises.
A Definition of Food Security
According to the World Health Organization, food security has three components: sufficient quantities of food are available, affordable access to food and finally, knowledge of basic nutrition. Currently, there are at least 60 million food insecure people in Pakistan and this number is likely to rise in the future due to the impact of climate change and population growth. It has been predicted that the Pakistani population will reach 300 million within the next 20 years. In addition, more land in Pakistan may fall victim to desertification, which means that there will be less land to grow food on.
Food insecurity also brings up broader issues in Pakistani society concerning women and children. Pakistan, India and Bangladesh have half of the world’s underweight children. If children are underweight, this often means that mothers do not get enough to eat either. The Constitution of Pakistan gives the concept of roti, kapra aur makaan meaning food, clothing and shelter its due as a basic human right. Food security in Pakistan should be incomprehensible since the country produces enough food to feed itself. In fact, Pakistan is one of the top five rice exporters in the world and parts of Pakistan are among the top wheat producers in the world; Punjab alone produces 16 million tons of wheat per year.
The Wheat Crisis
In 2007, Pakistan experienced its first wheat crisis. That was the year which saw food and grain prices rise by 83 percent. By 2008, the price of wheat had increased from 15 rupees per kilogram to 25 rupees per kilogram. In an attempt to make quick profits the government exploited this dismal situation to its fullest. It exported more wheat than its usual amount, creating a domestic shortage. To make matters worse, meat consumption has increased in countries like China and India, which means that now more grain is needed, for feeding people as well as livestock.
The situation in Pakistan is dire. The persistent shortage of electricity is a huge obstacle in optimal production of wheat flour, as the mills cannot work unhindered, therefore are not producing enough flour. To exacerbate this shortage, the private sector has joined hands with the government in order to take advantage of high wheat prices. Many reports suggest that the government provides cheap wheat to flour mills, and much of what these mills produce is either hoarded or gets smuggled out.
The black market in Pakistan is quite formidable and the wheat price hike of 30 to 35 percent in the last two years in Afghanistan hints at a high likelihood of smuggling. Many of the flour mills are owned by influential people who have links and connections with the top brass/politicians/people in power. Thus, they are able to maneuver the government greatly in order to make huge profits. This is detrimental to our society in that we don’t get enough of what we grow ourselves, and if we do, it is at an unreasonable price. Wheat is one of the cheapest and most available sources of protein, yet the collaboration between our private sector and public sector don’t let it remain either! Given that wheat is one of the staple foods consumed in Pakistan, the government and the private sector should be obligated to provide it sufficiently and affordably.
The Sugar Crisis
Sugar is the second largest agriculture related industry in Pakistan. Despite its importance in Pakistani society, the sugar industry has undergone a crisis almost every year since 2001. One of the major reasons why this happens almost annually is the great extent to which sugar is connected to Pakistani politics. About 50 percent of the sugar mills in Pakistan are owned by politicians or their families. This came about due to the heavy government investment in the sugar industry in the late 1980s in the form of loans from national banks. In the 1990s, many of these loans were written off, which ensured that the industry was able to sustain itself, regardless of whether it was efficient or not.
Middlemen have little or no power in such a situation. Firstly, the sugar industry holds a lot of clout within the government. In March 2009, the Economic Coordination Committee was aware of the huge gap between supply and demand for sugar, but did not import the sugar quickly enough, causing its price to artificially increase. Secondly, even though sugar experienced hyperinflation during Ramadan, religious authorities had nothing to say on the subject. Thirdly, the government dictates when sugarcane will be crushed, whereas even a fifth grader who has studied social sciences is aware of the fact that if the sugarcane is not crushed immediately after harvesting, its sugar content loses weight and the sugarcane fetches a cheaper price. Fourthly, there are laws which state that farmers cannot process their own sugarcane or sell the sugarcane out of their own zone. All these factors ensure that the government and mill owners dictate the terms on which sugar is sold. Because of this (and the increase in price of wheat) some farmers have stopped growing sugar and switched to wheat. In these abysmal conditions, sugar processing companies should take great pains to ensure that the demand for sugar is met.
However, they are financially indebted to the government and pressurized by their own greed.
Land Leases by Foreign Countries in Pakistan
Another major cause of food crises is the leasing of large tracts of land by foreign countries in Pakistan. This is already a common practice in other developing countries. Richer countries such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States struggle to feed their own populations. It is now likely that Pakistan will lease more than 200,000 hectares of land to Saudi Arabia. Despite the hunger crisis in Pakistan, the government allows land leases because of General Musharraf’s 2001 Corporate Farming Ordinance (CFO). The main elements of this ordinance are: there is no stipulation on the maximum amount of land that can be leased; corporations can import machines without any tariffs; the first lease lasts for 50 years and this can be extended by 49 years, and finally, banks will loan corporations money if needed. In addition to this ordinance, the government also allows landlords to become corporations and lease large amounts of land, which puts small farmers at a large disadvantage. It has been realised that this policy was one of the worst made under military rule, however the current government has not abolished it yet.
The government and supporters of this ordinance have argued that the CFO is necessary because the Pakistani agricultural industry is rife with inefficiencies. 67 percent of the population is linked to agriculture in one way or the other, and according to the government, this percentage is too high. Empirical evidence however, depicts that in some African countries where land was leased to corporations, many people became landless. Already, our small farmers are struggling to lease land from the government. The World Trade Organization has stated that Pakistan is a net food importing country so land leases will only make the situation worse. In October 2009, a deliberation about corporate farming was held in Karachi, and according to the intellectuals there, corporate farming is likely to deplete water supplies and degrade the surrounding environment. Plus, in the case where the corporations are from outside Pakistan, they will be able to retain/enjoy all the profits and tax benefits.
This situation is not likely to engender any sense of responsibility on the part of the corporations or the government. As mentioned above, farmers, labourers and middlemen in Pakistan have almost no rights in this situation and they are left to fend for themselves. Even if the government decides to not abolish the CFO, there should be regulations to limit and monitor corporations’ activities, and a percentage of their profits should go to maintaining the land in a responsible way, and to prevent future food crises. In addition, the sugar and wheat industries need to be regulated immediately and responsibly, as these foods are staples in the Pakistani diet.
Pakistan is rich in natural resources, and these resources need to be used sensibly and conserved. If efficient irrigation is introduced, areas performing at sub-optimal levels can be taken advantage of more efficiently. This is imperative, given the projected population of Pakistan in a few years. Climate changes already wreak havoc upon the environment. The government and the corporations in charge of the land need to acknowledge this and act accordingly and fast, to ensure that food crises will not be as persistent and repetitive as they have been.
1.World Health Organization, “Food Security”
2.Dr. Hassan Isfahani “Food Crisis in Pakistan”
3.Dawn Editorial “Looming Food Crisis”
4.DAWN.com “Will land leases worsen hunger at home?”
5.Niilofur Farrukh “Hunger Pangs of Pakistan”
6.Manzoor Ali Shah “Food crisis can create law, order situation”
7.Rubab Saleem “Food Crisis in Pakistan”
8.Abida Mukhtar “Pakistan’s food Crisis”
9.Shahid Kardar “Understanding the Wheat Crisis”
10.Dr. Adeel Malik “Sugar and political power Part I”
11.DAWN.com “Will Land Leases Worsen Hunger at Home?”
12.Upreti B. R and Yamuna Ghale “Factors Leading to Agro-biodiversity loss in Developing Countries: The Case of Nepal”
13.Ahmad Fraz Khan “The Pros and Cons of Corporate Farming”
14.Ramzan Chandio “Corporate Farming to Produce Unemployment”
15.Willem van Cotthem “Corporate farming or land grab”