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August 26, 2017

Pitfalls of the food policy


August 26, 2017

To finalise the draft National Food Security Policy (NFSP) 2017, the ministry organised a consultative workshop at the National Agricultural Research Centre (Narc) on July 12, 2017.

It engaged about 160 stakeholders from Islamabad, the four provinces, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan in the consultation. These stakeholders represented the government, academia, the civil society and international partners.

While progress in the much-awaited food policy is certainly welcome, the policy content is mostly disappointing due to its major focus on agricultural growth. The policy implicitly addresses the issue of food availability to the extent that it reads like an agricultural policy. The architects of the NFSP have applied a hand-waving approach to all other dimensions of food security – such as food accessibility, food utilisation and food stability.

As a result, ‘food’ itself is underrepresented in the policy draft. This is evident from the fact that out of 191 suggested policy measures, about 70 percent pertain to agricultural produce, 12 percent to food and food systems, three percent to combined food and agricultural issues, 10 percent to agricultural trade and marketing and seven percent to irrigation.

The notable concepts in the draft NFSP are the National Zero Hunger Programme (NZHP) and the Food Security Assessment Surveys (FSAS). Meanwhile, there are unnecessarily detailed sections on crop inputs (with subsection of seeds, pesticides, fertilisers, and farm credit), land and water conservation and management, the production of livestock, fisheries, poultry and curbing the cultivation of illegal crops such as poppy.

A 2013 joint study by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and the World Food Programme (WFP) clearly indicates that food availability is generally good in Pakistan. But food access (equal distribution) and food utilisation (dietary patterns) are major challenges. Even in Punjab, access to food is alarmingly low. This study further reveals that in cases where people have access to food, their diets lack the required levels of diversity and are deficient in various important micronutrients. This clearly suggests that, though food availability is important, it is not the sole constituent of food security in Pakistan and elsewhere.

So why is it that the NFSP primarily seeks to enhance agricultural produce (and thereby food availability) and does not offer much on other dimensions of food security? Setting aside the politics of provincial autonomy, it can be argued that agriculture is the domain that the NFSP masterminds at the Narc and the MNFSR knew well, cared about and consulted stakeholders about. This is evident from the presentation made by the Narc and the MNFSR officials at the consultative workshop, where 53 percent of the invited guests were agricultural experts and just 10 percent represented food and food system experts.

After the 18th Amendment, agriculture has become a provincial subject and the federal government lacks an appropriate mandate to intervene in the agriculture sector – even in the guise of the NFSP. The provinces may perceive the NFSP as the federal government’s attempt to regain control of the agricultural sector.

What should the NFSP genuinely strive for besides food availability? No individual can give a comprehensive answer to this question. However, an ideal NFSP is the one that reflects a balanced attitude towards food availability, food access, food utilisation and food stability. Agriculture and food policies should be well-linked and must feed into each other. Such policies may result from the genuine participation of the stakeholders that goes beyond tokenism and give them real control of the policy processes. 

Various mandatory concepts are missing from the proposed NFSP. First, we need food banks (like the Hamsaya Food Bank in Lahore) to collect, test and store excess food from restaurants and parties and deliver it to those who need it the most. Second, serious policy interventions are vital in altering food choices to promote healthy diets and nutritional diversity among the rich and the poor. This can potentially be achieved through food literacy programmes that go beyond food and nutritional issues and address all aspects – including drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.

Third, we need food quality controls in outside-home kitchens. Fourth, we must focus on the quality of food and raw materials, such as edible oils and processed, packaged, instant and readymade food items. Gender and the rural-urban dimensions of food security are integral as well. Universal and equitable food distribution mechanisms are also the need of the hour.

In addition, the policy needs to propose financial and institutional arrangements to achieve its intended objectives. In the absence of a truly compressive policy, it is difficult to think of a food-secure Pakistan.


The writer works at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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