Towards Food Security

The issue of food security and unhindered, dignified access to food has been at the centre of policy debates. However, what has brought this matter on global radar screen is its inclusion in Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The spectre of consistently increasing food prices, rising global population and supply-side constraints have woken the world community to the need of affirmative action at the collective level to strive to make the world food-secure. Food security has been categorised as an important variable in the national security paradigms of nations.

It is in this context that food price escalation in South Asia has become a matter of grave concern as hike in food prices can push millions of people below the poverty line, if measured against the yardstick of $1.25 a day. According to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report entitled “Food Price Escalation in South Asia—A Serious and Growing Concern”, 30% increase in food prices is estimated to push 10.4 million people to poverty in Pakistan. The reasons of rising food prices are manifold. Both demand and supply side factors are responsible for the price hike. From the Malthusian perspective, growing population is one of the major factors as population growth simply means that we have more mouths to feed and stagnant food supply as more and more agricultural land comes under attack from construction companies. If population keeps on growing at the current rate, pressure on the food supplies will further grow.

The ADB report mentions the rising incomes as another demand side factor, which is responsible for hike in food prices. But the point here is: whether the real incomes of all the sections of the society have increased in proportion to the rise in food prices. Prima facie, this is not the case. The escalation of food prices has certainly generated winners and losers. The profits of big producers have increased whereas incomes of the rural labour and small farmers have declined in real terms. So the policy implication from the demand side is: critically examine the population control policy with a view to make it effective and strengthen distributional mechanisms in the society to compensate the losers.

On the supply-side, major factor responsible for the food security problem is the low productivity of crops like wheat and rice which constitute the main staple of our people. The arable land for wheat and rice is not growing due to multiple factors. The land is concentrated in the thin minority. The big farmers, driven by the motivation of profit maximization, are switching over to the cash crops like potato and maize etc. The agricultural pricing policy of keeping the price especially of wheat depressed compared with the global prices through the instruments of fixation of ceiling prices and export restrictions, has also contributed to changes in cropping patterns.

Another supply-side factor is low yield of wheat and rice. According to recent statistics of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), per hectare production of wheat in case of Pakistan is 2.6 ton, compared with China and India which respectively produce 4.7 ton and 2.8 ton per hectare. As regards rice our per hectare yield is 3.1 ton, which is very low compared with china, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India respectively producing on average 6.5 ,4.2,4.1 and 3.3 ton per hectare. The low productivity compared with other regional partners points towards poor performance of agricultural research institutions, low quality of rural infrastructure and agricultural extension services, weak regulatory environment to control artificial shortages and quality of agricultural inputs, corruption increasing the cost of agricultural credit and other agricultural services especially to the small farmers.

Poor performance of research institutions is due to multiple factors. Low public spending for research, low /irrelevant skills of the researchers, absence of incentive system, appointment of non-professional people as managers of research institutions, lack of co-ordination of research with other institutions  within the country as well as outside the country  are some of the possible causes for their low performance. Policy implication is: determine the causes of poor performance dispassionately through an independent study and take immediate steps to gear these institutions towards high performance.

On the supply- side, weak regulatory frameworks and poor governance are also responsible for the low productivity. The agricultural inputs are either provided at the higher costs compared with the price fixed by the government or such inputs are of poor quality. Provision of fertilizers is a case in point. Due to inadequate supply, there is always a big gap between the demand and supply of fertilizers. Hoarding by the middlemen and fertilizer dealers is a known phenomenon. Resultantly, the farmers purchase fertilizers at inflated prices. If hoarding is controlled, the artificial shortage created by the middlemen can be avoided, at the least. As regards pesticide medicines, complaints about the adulteration and poor quality are very common. Visit the rural area and meet the farmers. You will be inundated with complaints about adulteration and hoarding of agricultural inputs. What should be done? Improve regulatory framework and governance for timely and quality supply of inputs to the farmers.

Succinctly speaking, a multi-pronged strategy is needed to enhance the agricultural productivity. Such a strategy should not only focus on the visible areas warranting improvement like overhauling of research institutions and provision of quality inputs. But other areas like education and rural infrastructure development should also be the main focus of such a strategy. The Indian Punjab is a case in point. According to RS Sidhu and AS Bhullar, agricultural economists of Agricultural University of Ludhiana in one of their papers have asserted that spending in education and rural infrastructure played a vital role in increasing the productivity of Indian Punjab though the agricultural policies in both the sides of the border were almost similar.

While delineating the points of difference between the two Punjabs, these researchers say that by the mid-1980s all the villages were electrified in Indian Punjab. The condition of the roads in the rural areas was better and about 90% of the cropped area was irrigated. These factors thus contributed towards the agricultural productivity, besides the massive subsidization of fertilizer, credit, power and irrigation inputs. We also provided subsidies to agriculture especially during the era of Green revolution but in our case, subsidies had stronger bias towards the big farmers. On the other hand, in Indian Punjab small and medium farmers were the main beneficiaries and that made the difference.

It also needs to be mentioned here that production of food in sufficient quantity is not a guarantee of food security. Rather it is the economic and physical access of the people to food which is also important. Amartya Sen, the distinguished economist of our age, in his study on famine in Bengal that killed two to three million people and brought starvation to millions of people, says that it was not shortage of food that caused the famine. The main reason, according to Sen, was: people did not have enough access to food. “The years 1942 and 1943 were of unprecedented inflation, mainly resulting from war expenditures, and the absolute level of prices moved rapidly upwards,” Sen wrote in one of the notes on famine as failure of exchange entitlement. If the change in exchange entitlement is such that a large number of people are excluded from the ability to acquire food, then famine and poverty is the outcome. Policy implication is: strengthen security safety net and generate employment opportunities.

In a nutshell, food insecurity is a multi-dimensional problem and warrants to be tackled through a multi-pronged approach.  Demand, supply as well as distribution factors need to taken into account while formulating a strategic response to food insecurity. Both the unavailability and structural inaccessibility to food need to be addressed simultaneously.

Pakistan, being an agrarian society, depends largely on this critical sector, which employs about 45% of labour force and contributes about 21% to Gross Domestic Product. Given the fact that food security is going to emerge as one of key themes at global level, the country needs to invest in this important sector of national economy through provision of targeted subsidies to farmers, relatively low-cost inputs and diversification in cultivation pattern of crops. Farmers’ awareness and education about modern means of cultivation should be an essential component of a mass-scale training programme. Pakistan has an opportunity to emerge as a food basket for the gulf region in particular and the rest of the world in general if right public policy choices are made. The provincial governments have a daunting challenge at hand and need to come up with sound agricultural policies to promote this all-important sector of economy.


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