ISLAMABAD: With Pakistan faring badly on the latest global hunger index, experts fear the South Asian nation will not be able to fulfil its commitment to feeding its entire population by 2030 given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on livelihoods, climate change, especially monsoon variability, and the government’s inattention to food insecurity problem.
“In any event, food inflation and poverty rates have destroyed whatever Pakistan has gained through the economic growth. People are struggling to make ends meet, so hitting the zero hunger target set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be a herculean task for the country. With most policies of the government, if anything like that really exists right now, revolving around short-term decision-making and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, I seriously doubt that elimination of hunger from our country will take precedence,” Prof Zulfiqar Bhutta, an expert in nutrition from the Aga Khan University, Karachi, and University of Toronto, Canada, told The News.
The 2021 Global Hunger Index recently compiled by aid agencies, Welthungerhilfe of Germany and Concern Worldwide of Ireland, ranked Pakistan 92 among 116 countries, declaring its hunger levels ‘serious’. Alarmingly, around 60 percent of the country’s population is food insecure with 44 percent of children under five years of age chronically malnourished.
Prof Bhutta wondered where food security trends for the period post 2018 were drawn from when the country had yet to release the data of the latest Ehsaas poverty survey. He said it was the year 2017-18 when the data of all main components of the global hunger index was last collected in the country, while no survey was carried out on food security in the real sense during the Covid-19 pandemic. The nutrition expert declared climate change an existential issue for the country, saying he was dismayed at how little was being done to address it, including its impact on food and water security.
He said with the impact of the pandemic being long-term, a lot of nutrition would slide back and women and children would bear the brunt of it coupled with the climate crisis. Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri, a food security specialist, too, was not sure whether Pakistan would be able to achieve the 2030 zero hunger target as he insisted it all depended on climate change and access to affordable energy.
He told The News that there was a high likelihood of the country’s crop yields and livestock production being hit by water shortages and heatwaves in the days ahead. Dr Suleri, who heads the premier policy think tank SDPI, said compared to peer economies, the food security situation in Pakistan was quite grim.
“Food security comprises food availability, access to food, and food absorption -- assimilation in the body for which a person has to be healthy and she/he should have access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. In our [Pakistan’s] case, affordability of food and access to clean drinking water has historically challenged the food security situation. More recently, mainly due to climate change, the yield of major crops has gone down affecting the physical availability of food, too. Loss of livelihoods after the Covid-19 pandemic, inflation and commodity supercycle are other major reasons for widening food insecurity in the country,” he said.
The expert said Pakistan was an agricultural country, a major fruit and rice exporter and a large milk producer but that didn’t mean that it was food secure, too. He said though food insecurity was a seasonal phenomenon at times, many in Pakistan experienced transient food insecurity.
Dr Suleri complained about the unavailability of the latest data on hunger and nutrition in Pakistan, saying the issue rendered many of the government’s coping strategies either irrelevant or redundant.
He said the Covid-19 pandemic in Pakistan affected the health status of people (food assimilation capacities) and deprived them partially or completely of livelihoods and thus, limiting their access to food amid heightened vulnerability to food insecurity.
The expert insisted that the government largely confused agricultural productivity and yield with food security. “Simply increasing the yield, which is not economically affordable, or ignoring the availability of clean drinking water can’t ensure food security. Let us admit that inflation, like everywhere else in Pakistan, is here to stay for some time. Securing, improving and strengthening livelihoods will be a major step towards improving food security,” he said.
Dr Suleri advocated stronger social safety nets, availability of clean drinking water, climate-smart agriculture, affordable energy and equitable food distribution within families to reduce hunger and malnutrition.
“Working on the whole food security pillars and not just improving the crop yield is the way forward,” he said.
Chief of nutrition at the Planning and Development Ministry Dr Nazeer Ahmed highlighted the importance of the localised nutrition composition table within agro-climatic zones and said climate change and less adapted local food systems were making it hard for the country to feed its people.
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