Despite being a nation of agricultural abundance, approximately 34% of Pakistanis continue to remain moderately food insecure, as per the 1World Food Program (WFP) 2019 report on Food Security and Nutrition in Pakistan. Food security, defined in the 1996 World Food Summit as the state in which all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food, is an issue that is immediately relevant in the government and policymaking chambers, as well as quite literally—our dining table!
With the rising population and increasingly discerning consumers, the demand for safe food in Pakistan will rise drastically in the near future. Today’s informed consumers have a more nutritionally evolved taste, the fulfillment of which is increasingly being met from more geographically distant food sources mostly within Asia. This has led to the Asia region playing the role of a consumption driver in the global food chain, accounting for 31% of total food and agriculture imports, as per a 2016 study by Rabobank.
It is critical, then, that food must move from places of abundance to places of scarcity and be available at affordable prices. Farmers must plant the crops most suited to their soil to attain a sustainable competitive advantage, but tangible growth in this area is difficult without massive reforms in the local production techniques. Given that more food is crossing borders, the consumer requires that the food they consume is safe—regardless of where in the world it may have come from. So what is the answer? A globally harmonized set of science-based food safety standards, without which mutually beneficial open access is an elusive dream.
It is surprising, if not concerning, that the standards vary from country to country, as well as within the same nation, for food consumed domestically and that reserved for exports. Inconsistent parameters make trading across borders confusing and difficult. The government can build long-term resilience by actively pursuing globalized and harmonized food safety standards. Provincially, the Punjab Food Authority has taken several measures to ensure availability of quality food products to consumers including amending existing food safety standards, ensuring safe transportation and storage of perishables, and curbing food adulteration through stringent control of the food and eatery sector. Labelling is another topic of great interest to the present day consumers. They are mindful not only of the finished food product, but also the traceability of raw materials, harvesting methods, production processes and macronutrient break up. Though this is not a common practice yet, but the food industry here should prepare for regulations around these trends.
The stakes are high, and so is the risk. Within Pakistan, the periodic flare up of various diseases confirms that the problem is grave. Foodborne illnesses are rampant, especially diarrhea amongst children. Poor processing and storage of milk, cereal grains, and nuts is a major cause of aflatoxin contamination and mold proliferation. 2As per a study by the Grain Quality Testing Laboratory of the Agricultural Research Council, 26% of samples of plant foods had levels of pesticides or aflatoxins in excess of accepted limits and at least 25 consignments per annum of Pakistani plant products are rejected by the SPS control authorities in the EU. More pesticide resistant seeds and technological advances in farming will improve both productivity and yield quality.
In fact, lower yield is one of our most debilitating realities. Indigenous oilseed crops such as edible oils, particularly rapeseed, mustard, cottonseeds and sunflower fulfill a mere 12% of the demand. On the other hand, there is legislation against the sale of substandard oil and ghee. In the absence of affordable and safe alternatives, the consumer is left with little choice.
It is imperative that we focus on advancement in production methods, grain growing and harvesting techniques, livestock feeding, slaughtering and milking techniques, transportation, storage and sanitation. Adopting these is really no longer a matter of choice. It is critical and will help bring about radical change for the country’s growth. In this regard the private sector can play a crucial role and should be drawn upon by the authorities concerned. Technical expertise, training and the sharing of best practices is imperative to enable food enterprises to bring in high standards and achieve their potential in a more productive and sustainable manner.
With collaboration, collective ownership, harmonized standards across geographies, the legislative framework and testing protocol will become an opportunity to participate in the free market reaching its full potential. Structural transformations are critical to eradicate the prevalence of malnutrition and undernourishment in Pakistan, both in the present times as well as the future.
Let’s make food safety a priority, at our homes, our workplace and our nation. We must prioritize this issue and underscore the universality of the need for safe and affordable food, for everyone, everywhere, every time—but for that, we need everyone on board.
The write is a business leader