"Food insecurity is a non-traditional security threat"

October 11, 2015

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri gives a comprehensive analysis of the causes of food insecurity in Pakistan

The News on Sunday: For a layman, what is food security in terms of our social and economic context? How do low-income families ensure food security of their members?

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri: Food security is a multidimensional concept. Academically speaking, it means having sufficient supplies of affordable food throughout the year to ensure a healthy and productive life. It has four components, physical availability of nutritious food (production, aid, or import); economic access (purchasing power through jobs or social safety nets); utilisation or assimilation in the body; and stability (stable supply, predictable prices). Clean drinking water, sanitation, and health are prerequisites for utilisation.

A meal at a five star hotel followed by a glass of contaminated water cannot turn anyone food secure. Unfortunately, low-income families have to compromise on their food security needs mainly because of lack of purchasing power. They consume less nutritious food, skip their meals, compromise on health expenditures, often lack clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, and in many cases, prefer male family members’ food needs over female family members within a household.

TNS: According to Vision 2025, 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population is facing food insecurity, and nearly 50 per cent of women and children under five years of age are malnourished. Are we aware of the enormity of the crisis?

AQS: The mere fact that these figures are included in Vision document reflects that the policy makers are aware of the situation to some extent. However, we are ignoring that malnourishment leads to persistent lethargy, poor concentration, low achievements in school and at work, compromise IQ level, and long-term physical and mental disabilities. With half of the nation facing food insecurity and malnourishment, we would certainly not be competitive in knowledge economy.

TNS: Our constitution recognises the basic right to food. We have the ministry of national food security and research (MNFSR) at the federal level to ensure food security; and yet we have the famine in Tharparkar, and ranking lowest in all three dimensions of food security, namely: availability of food, accessibility of food, and affordability of food. Why?

AQS: First things first, after the 18th Amendment in the Constitution of Pakistan, most of the tasks pertaining to food security are devolved to provinces where MNFSR has no say. Second, the MNFSR is a successor of Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock (MINFAL). MINFAL was mandated to enhance food production (availability). Unfortunately, the team of MINFAL under the new name of MNFSR is still stuck to its old role (which is very important).

Food insecurity is the gap between "what could be" and "what is". "What could be" is the potential of agricultural system to feed the population with adequate nutrition. "What is" is the on ground situation affected by unequal and instable physical distribution.

However, food security, as we have seen, is much more than production. It requires MNFSR to give policies on how to integrate social safety nets for improved access; to have a say in federal PSDP (and advisory role in provincial PSDP) on where to provide improved drinking water, health, and sanitation facilities on a priority basis, etc. Until and unless a broader mandate is given to MNFSR and the ministry, in turn, is willing to be assertive on using its mandate, many areas of Pakistan, including Thar would keep on suffering from food insecurity.

TNS: We know that prolonged periods of food insecurity can lead to socio-economic and political instability. What impact has food insecurity in smaller provinces like Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa likely to make?

AQS:  Our research shows that physical availability of food (although skewed on provincial basis) has slightly improved. However, its socio-economic access has deteriorated over the years. Pakistan is not only facing huge income disparities, but also the distributional disparities when it comes to clean water, sanitation and health facilities. The recurring challenges of physical insecurity, energy deficit, floods (or droughts), and climate change are further fuelling the inequalities which is producing a group of haves and another group of have-nots.

The have-nots, when they get a collective identity, be it ethnic, provincial, rural-urban, creed, etc., will immediately lead to socio-economic and political instability. Balochistan, KP, and FATA are unfortunately most food-insecure regions in Pakistan. The food insecurity along with all other insecurities that these regions face turn into a classic case of "insecurity" breeding "insecurities." The sense of deprivation, marginalisation, and being insecure (in all respects) in those areas is one of the reasons of chronic instability prevailing in those regions particularly, and in Pakistan generally.

TNS: The national task force on food security in one of its reports of February 2009 pointed to the lack of policy initiatives in the area of food security and recommended for a food security strategy. Have we come up with any?

AQS: A draft food security policy is prepared by MNFSR. However, it is unable to cover the multidimensionalities of food security and seems to be an agricultural policy. Unless and until MNFSR recognises its new role, it would not be able to come up with any doable policy initiative.

Read also: Half plate: Do people know what is a healthy diet?

TNS: Household Income and Expenditure Survey data 2013/14 shows average people in Pakistan are consuming 2080 kcal per person per day, which is below the minimum requirement. It says 58 per cent of Pakistanis have been found to be food insecure. How can this situation be reversed?

AQS: Though frequently used, but taking caloric intake as the only measure of food security would be misleading. Calories are not all that matter. Even if our per capita caloric consumption was above the world average, we still cannot be sure that a high caloric food is meeting our daily nutritional requirements. For instance, we can have all the calories that we need from a single food group, say potatoes (rich in carbohydrates), but it would not be a balanced diet and lead to malnutrition.

Food insecurity is the gap between "what could be" and "what is". "What could be" is the potential of agricultural system to feed the population with adequate nutrition. "What is" is the on ground situation affected by unequal and instable physical distribution; volatile food prices and insufficient purchasing power; and mal-governed health, water and sanitation services. To bridge this gap, we need to think of how to create the optimum policy and practice environment where the potential of agricultural system may be completely utilised, so that it can provide adequate nutrition.

TNS: What is the situation of access to food in different provinces and regions of Pakistan? Punjab is the only province with its own sufficient food production. Why is the situation so bad in other provinces?

AQS: Access to food implies economic and physical access to food and is thus highly important aspect of food security, as it goes beyond the physical availability of food to the ability of individuals and households to access the food. According to our research based on the data till 2013, overall, only 6 districts in Pakistan were found to be having good food access situation for its populations while another 16 had a fair situation. The remaining districts were under poor to extremely poor food access situation.

In KP, Balochistan, FATA, AJK, and GB no district was found to have good access to food. Although Abbotabad in KP, Quetta in Balochistan, and Mirpur in AJK had fair access. Five districts in Punjab and 1 in Sindh had good access to food. Even in Punjab 7 districts have very poor access. Lahore, Karachi Metropolitan, Quetta with low food production have fair access. This not only shows the regional disparities when it comes to distribution of growth, but also that now food crops are being considered as cash crops.

Major part of the yield is sold to meet immediate cash requirements, to take care of cost of input for the next crop, or to pay off the loans taken for previous crop. Thus, many of them find themselves in a situation where despite being food producers, they have to buy their staple food from the market and that limits their economic access.

TNS: What research has the SDPI done on food security and what policy recommendations has it given? Please share with us briefly.

AQS: Food security is one of the major areas of research at SDPI. We have been producing "state of food security in Pakistan", a ranking of districts of Pakistan on the basis of food security since 2003. We are working on impact of climate change on food security; impact of bad governance on food security; and how women are prone to more food insecurity than men.

In the context of Pakistan, when one talks of internal threats facing the country, one is actually talking about outputs of political instability, socio-economic inequalities, social injustice, and real or perceived deprivation and marginalisation which gets further endorsed due to chronic food insecurity prevailing in many parts of Pakistan. Thus, we consider food insecurity as a non-traditional security threat and recommend a paradigm shift where food security should be given as much priority as other types of securities, i.e., national, regional, and global.

"Food insecurity is a non-traditional security threat"