Asia Program

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Hunger Pains: Pakistan's Food Insecurity

June 03, 2009 // 8:45am4:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Urban Sustainability Laboratory
Environmental Change and Security Program
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In recent weeks, Pakistan's military has been waging a full-scale campaign against the Taliban in the country's Swat Valley. This operation has displaced several million people from Swat and surrounding areas, threatening their access to food. This developing humanitarian crisis is exacerbating Pakistan's already-widespread food insecurity. According to 2008 data from the World Food Program, 77 million Pakistanis—nearly half the country's total population—are food insecure, while 95 of Pakistan's 121 districts face problems such as hunger and malnutrition-related disease. Last year, a UNICEF report concluded that half of all child deaths in Pakistan can be attributed to poor nutrition.

On June 3, the Asia Program, with assistance from the Environmental Change and Security Program, the Comparative Urban Studies Project, the Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy, and the Karachi-based Fellowship Fund for Pakistan, hosted a conference to illustrate the magnitude and manifestations of Pakistan's food insecurity; to identify its possible causes; and to consider ways forward.

In the conference's opening address, Zafar Altaf of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council pointed out the key obstacles to improving Pakistan's food security, including a disproportionate emphasis on wheat, inefficiencies of fertilizer and irrigation systems, poor infrastructure in the western provinces, and a lack of innovative knowledge generation. He emphasized the importance of improving both socio-economic conditions and the quality of research institutions. Such improvements are needed in order to break the cycle of sub-optimal policies and to produce imaginative solutions. In Altaf's view, the single most beneficial initiative toward strengthening food security in Pakistan would be to bring Baluchistan's currently uncultivable—but abundantly available—land into use.

The morning panel examined the macro-level challenges of Pakistan's food security. Sohail Jehangir Malik, of the Pakistani consulting firm Innovative Development Strategies, spoke about agricultural production, with an emphasis on wheat. He argued that Pakistan's food security is tied to the production and availability of this staple, which accounts for more than 55 percent of the country's total caloric consumption. In Pakistan, the availability of, and access to, wheat is a story of regional disparities. For example, the volatile Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) suffers from "huge shortfalls" in wheat, while the fertile eastern province of Punjab enjoys a surplus. Malik criticized Islamabad's subsidizing of the wheat industry, contending that wheat millers benefit disproportionately from this aid. He advocated for a middle ground between protecting consumers and subsidizing producers.

Saadia Toor, of the College of Staten Island, declared that Pakistan's food insecurity is not just the result of poor agricultural production, but also a byproduct of structural factors such as unequal land distribution. Land, she asserted, is Pakistan's "single-most important asset"—yet millions of Pakistanis are landless. "Broad-based"—and not simply "cosmetic"—land reform is essential for strengthening food security and reducing poverty, because improved land access reduces food prices for families. How, Toor asked, do these crucial reforms come about? Lobbying the government is pointless, she contended, recalling how Pakistan's prime minister announced in 2002 that land reforms were "over." Instead, she advocated for empowering peoples'—particularly peasants'—movements. Food is a basic right, she concluded, and therefore should be thought of not in terms of availability and access, but instead in terms of entitlement and justice.

Roshan Malik of Iowa State University addressed the linkages between governance and food security in Pakistan. Article 38 of Pakistan's constitution stipulates that the state shall provide basic necessities such as food. However, in reality, Islamabad's record in providing such services has been abysmal in recent years. A big part of the problem has been the country's worsening violence. Malik reviewed the findings of a food security analysis of Pakistan he helped conduct several years ago. The results revealed high levels of food insecurity in the most violent parts of Pakistan. All seven agencies of the unstable Federally Administered Tribal Areas were found to be "extremely food insecure," while the districts in the NWFP and Baluchistan deemed food insecure had "alarming" amounts of violence. Malik concluded that because of the country's violent environment, Pakistanis at times must literally harvest crops "under the gun."

Hunger, according to Abid Qaiyum Suleri of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, poses more of a security than a humanitarian threat to Pakistan. Suleri, the conference's luncheon speaker, asserted that steady increases in the number of food-insecure individuals have led to class conflict (between "haves" and "have-nots") and violence that ultimately weaken the state. The high prevalence of food insecurity has intensified "extraordinary behavior," giving rise to suicides, suicide attacks, and the selling of children, and hastening the loss of dignity. To address this crisis, Suleri proposed a "paradigm shift" in public spending that moves away from national defense and toward social development, and that benefits the individual, not the state. Suleri called on the international community to step up activities that improve Pakistan's distribution of food to those in need, that increase food absorption capacities in camps for the internally displaced, and that expand the reach of humanitarian operations already under way. "It's not the atomic bomb," Suleri declared, "but the courage of the individual [that is] needed for social change."

The afternoon panel looked at the human side of food security in Pakistan. The University of Toronto's Kenneth Iain MacDonald focused on subsistence agricultural systems in Pakistan's Northern Areas, amidst the harsh terrain and demanding climate of some of the highest mountains in the world. Counter-intuitively, the most successful farmers in this region produce wheat yields comparable to those in the fertile American Midwest—thanks in good measure, MacDonald argued, to the area's remoteness from Islamabad's meddling. Now, however, "adventure tourism" and mountaineering are opening up the region to outsiders, which has driven up food prices for local residents without bringing compensating financial benefits. Food insecurity for the Northern Areas' traditionally self-sufficient farmers is therefore on the rise.

The World Food Program's Allan Jury recounted his organization's experiences in combating hunger vulnerability in Pakistan. Hunger is "the curse that keeps on giving," Jury posited; hungry people stop investing in education and health care, which adversely impacts their economic situation and leads to yet more hunger. Food security must be handled through a "lifecycle approach," emphasizing bottom-up rather than top-down solutions. The World Food Program, for instance, has had considerable success in providing food at schools and offering take-home rations, in some cases only for girls. This serves to encourage low-income families to send their female children to school. Food insecurity and poor governance are inextricably linked, Jury insisted. Pakistan will never be food secure until it provides its citizenry with good governance.

Food security must be distinguished from nutrition security, stated Gautam Hazarika of the University of Texas at Brownsville. Food security, normally measured in caloric terms, is less encompassing than nutrition security, which also takes into account access to mineral nutrients such as iron or vitamins, and to adequate health care. Hazarika looked at various explanations for what he termed the South Asian "enigma"—the fact that 41 percent of South Asian children under the age of five are malnourished, whereas the comparable figure for sub-Saharan Africa is 27 percent, even though South Asia is at least as economically developed as sub-Saharan Africa. After examining and dismissing several "spurious" explanations for this enigma, Hazarika concluded that a main factor in the high incidence of child malnutrition in South Asia is the low status of South Asian women. Broaden women's bargaining power within the family and within society generally, Hazarika argued, and one will begin to combat child malnutrition.

Drafted by Michael Kugelman, Susan L. Levenstein, and Merium Haq.

 
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