By M. Shafi Niaz FOR some time past, the question of food security is being discussed both at the international and national levels. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program of the United Nations as well as other international organisations have been warning of the impending onslaught of food insecurity, at the global level. The warning has also been conveyed to Pakistan. To improve the situation, it is advisable to define what food security is and what is involved therein before reasonable suggestions are made to rectify the situation.
There are five main elements which together ensure food security:
Availability of adequate food; accessibility of food to every inhabitant, rich or poor, men or women, living in urban or rural areas, in the mountains or in any nook and corner of the country; the price should be affordable for all; reasonable storage facilities should be there to meet emergency demands; nutritional value of food should meet the requirements of a reasonable healthy man/woman measured in terms of calories, protein, fat and minerals.
During the last couple of years, Pakistan has suffered almost in all the above four elements which, in one way or the other, are inter-related.
Availability is determined by domestic production, imports (if any), plus aid from any aid-giving agency, and exports (anticipated). It should include strategic reserves, which are normally calculated at the rate of 10-15 per cent of annual requirement by the developed countries and comes to about 2.3 million ton against one million ton considered adequate by the government here. Domestic production is adjusted by sub-tracting the seed requirements of the following year, wastages during storage, animal and poultry feed, and anticipated exports.
The data regarding domestic production has been questioned during the last few years both at the national and international levels. Data collection needs improvement, as without it, there is a doubt if food security objective can be effectively accomplished. Equally important is the estimation of demand. The demand is determined by expected requirements of food and is measured normally in terms of kilogramme of given grains per head either per year or month or day. More appropriate would be in terms of per year.
Wheat is the staple diet of the people. Different basis for demand estimates are made by different institutions. For instance, the Agricultural Prices Commission (now the Agriculture Policy Institute) has been giving 98, 116 and 118 kg per head requirements per year and works out the bases for these assumptions. Lately, the Institute put at 120 kg per capita per year consumption based on the food balance sheet, but actually worked out the requirements on the basis of 124 kg,– the same as the ministry of food & agriculture.
On this basis, the gross requirement for the year 2007-08 was worked out to be 24.10 million tons which included requirements for human consumption, seed, wastages, if any, and a million ton for security reserves. Against these requirements, the production estimates were of the order of 23 million tons, according to the ministry of food and agriculture. But in fact it turned out to be much less – only 20-21 million tons. This shortfall plus exports allowed at the wrong time without knowing the correct position of the crop size, resulted in shortages. It is thus clear that the first main element of food security was not in place.
The second element in food security is accessibility. With acute shortage of the commodity, the accessibility turned out to be the next problem. The government had to take measures like banning movement of the commodity from one province to the other, and even restricting the inter-district movements. Such restrictions not only badly limited supplies to deficient areas but also helped the prices to escalate. Atta shortage was seriously felt, which created unrest in such areas and even led to riots, never experienced before.
As a result of these two factors, the third important element of food security, i.e. affordability came into play. Due to shortages in supplies, and non-accessibility in many areas of the country, the prices reached a level where the poor and even the middle-income groups found it extremely difficult to buy the commodity even if it was available. The government fixed, at intervals, atta price thus raising it every time but failed to ease the situation because of imbalance in the supply-demand situation. The government even tried to help the public, particularly the poor, by supplying atta at cheap rates through the utility stores network, but it was to a very limited extent.
The prices of commodities of daily use that went up during the year (April 2007 to April 2008) are as follows: Wheat prices increased by 18 per cent, IRRI rice and maize by 54 per cent each, sugar by 20 per cent, gram (dal) by 36 per cent, moong by 43 per cent and masoor (dal) imported by100 per cent. There has not been any significant increase in prices of other commodities.
Although the prevailing situation is the outcome of the wrong policies of the previous government, the brunt has to be borne by the new government. The general impression of the masses is that the present government, despite its promises made at the time of election, is failing in fulfilling its promises. The people are thus getting disappointed and disgusted without realising that such issues cannot be resolved over night. Usually longer time is needed for the resolution of such problems.
The fourth element which is seldom touched by those concerned with food security is the adequate and quality storage facilities. According to agriculture statistics, published by ministry of food, agriculture and livestock (Minfal), the storage capacity, which at present is 4.3 million tons for wheat, has gone down to this level from 4.8 million tons in 1999. It is apparent that no new storage capacity has been built since then. A significant percentage of this is in very bad shape and is not fit for storing wheat. A few years back, storages at Landhi and Pipri (in Sindh) were so bad that wheat stored there was infested with weevil and other pests and was not fit for human consumption. Even today, atta that is being supplied at many of the utility and other stores is not fit for human consumption.
More storage capacity of good quality in different areas of production and consumption is needed for food security purposes. The experience of building silos so far has not met with any success despite heavy expenditure incurred thereon.
The fifth element in the food security is the nutrition issue. The government has calculated that keeping in view various factors, the caloric requirements per head per day are 2,350. However, no monitoring of the daily requirements of an individual in terms of protein, fat and other nutrients and their availability has been done. Earlier estimates showed that of such caloric requirements about 75 per cent need to be met from food grains, 3.4 per cent from fats and oils and 21.6 per cent from other sources. Out of the needed 51 gm of protein per head per day, 43 gm can be met from plant sources, eight gm from animal source, while fat requirements are of the order of 24 gm a-day.
However, different criteria have been fixed to determine poverty level by different organisations. Some use the criteria: one dollar a-day, others assume $2 a-day, while the Pakistan government assumes 2,350 calories per head a-day. On this basis the estimates showed that about one-third of the population was below the poverty line although some question this figure and think it is much more. It is controversial to say as to what exactly is the percentage of population that has suffered because of the recent food shortage. The World Food Programme has, through a recent survey, revealed that about half of the population may have been affected by the escalation of food shortage and rise in prices. Other factors are also important for food security, for example infrastructure of road, transport facilities to reach remote areas, and so on.
The question then arises as to what steps should be taken to face the daunting food security problems of the country. It can go into a long list, but only few of the priority areas are mentioned below, which are both short and long-term measures:
There is an urgent need that the government announces an agriculture- friendly policy.
The data collection of production of crops should be improved. Siimilarly, the demand projections need improvement. These are the basic essential elements for food security.
The productivity of crops be enhanced by subsidising the cost of inputs, particularly of fertiliser, seed, diesel, etc; regular and timely announcement of support price policy of (selected) crops and its vigorous implementation for which political backing is a must to enable farmers to get lucrative prices to act as an incentive for raising productivity and production.
The government should not hesitate in subsidising such a programme. The Agriculture Policy Institute (API) should be made independent and strengthened by appointing competent staff.
The API should work out different cropping patterns for different zones/areas keeping in view the local factors like soil, climate, irrigation water supply etc.
High-yielding varieties, with less water requirement, should be evolved. Water-saving techniques in the use of water in furrows rather than flow irrigation, particularly at the field level, should be given priority. For this purpose practical programmes like laser land leveling, sprinkler and drip irrigation be worked out and should be subsidised, as it will give dividends in the short run.
Food grain storage capacity needs to be enlarged, not only in capacity but also in quality both in the producing and consuming areas.
There is a pressure for the adoption of gene technology, but some risks are involved. These may include marketing of unapproved varieties, threat of any GMO which may pose threat to non-GMO crop, and so on.
Use of agricultural land around cities for house-building and industries should be banned as fertile agriculture lands are being used for this purpose.
Dry areas, as in Balochistan, offer high potential for agriculture, which should be given due emphasis.
In the past agriculture sector has remained neglected and has not received adequate investment. Big investment should be made in this sector to alleviate poverty among the rural masses. It would also help in stabilising food security in the country.
The writer is the former advisor to the Chief Executive of Pakistan on Food and Agriculture and Founder-Chairman, Agricultural Prices Commission (Apcom).
Source: Daily Dawn, 5/5/2008