World Food Day is today and the message from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation on the occasion is that we should “seriously look at what causes swings in food prices” so that their impact on the poor can be reduced.
What causes swings in food prices (mostly upswing) in the rest of the world may not have the same effect in Pakistan. In our case, inflation is often an issue of governance rather than economics. And it affects the poor the most. According to a report written by the Sustainable Policy Development Institute and the World Food Programme, titled “Food security in Pakistan”, consumption of wheat in 2009-10 declined by 10 per cent, because of an increase in its price.
The same study tells us that half of all Pakistanis spend between 65 and 75 per cent of their monthly income on food. Seventy-six per cent of Pakistan’s districts have very low access to food. In terms of population, 74 per cent of the population lacks the nutrients needed for a balanced diet. All they can afford is cereal, sugar and oil. This means, usually, no meat, no fruit, little milk, even less vegetables or pulses. And around half of the entire population of the country falls in this bracket.
Most such people are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and lack of resilience against any internal and external shock. One such shock that people, especially those who are in the low-food consumption group face is of fuel inflation. An increase in the cost of energy and ongoing power shortages both have an adverse impact on the food purchasing power of many Pakistanis.
It is not only that electricity is becoming expensive, but that process reduces the ability of many Pakistanis to purchase enough food for themselves and their family members. According to our study, what these people then do is to switch to less preferred and less expensive food. They also limit how much they eat at each meal. And in extreme cases, the consumption of food is skewed to favour the earning adults of the household, and this causes malnourishment among children, women and the elderly.
Increasing food prices encourages hoarding, and this leads to panic buying, which in turn causes more hoarding. This panic buying cycle can spiral out of control if — as often happens in Pakistan — the state doesn’t take charge. Even if food production in Pakistan should not have been an issue, the absence of good governance has ensured that it has in fact become one, because food does not reach all sections of society at a uniform price.
So, what can be done to reduce the impact of food price on the most vulnerable members of society? First things first; our policy-makers need to come out of their state of denial and accept that there is the issue of food insecurity. They then need to strengthen the social protection system to provide targeted relief, either in the form of cash for work or food for work programmes, to those who are deprived of access to food. For children, local authorities should introduce free lunch schemes in schools.
In general, the lesson to be learnt for a country like Pakistan is that faced with soaring food prices, there is a need to improve national food governance. And finally, to make long-term investments in the food supply chain at all levels.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 16th, 2011.