Food factor

Floods have ravaged hundreds and thousands acres of arable land and crops in many parts of Pakistan during the last couple of years, Sindh being the recent victim to torrential rains. One of the most visible losses, besides life, is the standing crops across hundreds of acres of land.

That simply means food inflation, even starvation. Signs of food deficiency are already very obvious in Sindh where peoples’ entire belongings have been swept away and days go without eating food to one’s fill or drinking clean water. But food inflation is not just the problem of Pakistan; many developing countries in this part of the world are struggling to feed the teeming millions.

When showing displeasure, the old Chinese would say, ‘may you live in interesting times’. Apparently, our displeased Mother Earth has asked us to live in interesting times as well as try to have a peaceful society perching on inequitable distribution of food-related resources.

So, the developing world, especially the South Asian region finds itself in a situation of frail food security system stressed under food inflation, and climate change related intense weather conditions, such as floods and other natural hazards.

Burden is multiplied onto the fragile institutional arrangements deployed for research, development and innovation, social protection, ensuring agriculture finance, and providing access to land and other input resources. Under the circumstances, South Asia, which accommodates 40 percent of the world’s poor even before spike in food prices in 2008, needs special attention of donors, governments, and civil society organisations.

While analysing the grim side of the food situation, a recent global report ‘Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource Constrained World’ by Oxfam argues the case for a new prosperity. It argues for new global governance for agriculture which improves trade rules for the poor economies, new future for agriculture which witnesses improved investment agenda while ensuring a resilient ecological foresight which includes equitable distribution of scarce resources.

At this point, before discussing the food issues any further, it is worthwhile to have a cursory look at the dynamics of the agriculture system.

By the middle of the previous century, the Malthusian fear was effectively confined to texts books rather than frightening people in streets. Production was increased with high-yielding varieties. Under a complex system of macro-economic interventions and structural transformation, the farmers of the now-developed countries were able to get financing as well as technology to produce at reduced costs and in abundance.

Those who could not remain in agriculture went to industry in urban areas and enjoyed fruits of opulence and rapid growth in agriculture, industry, and lately in services. The standards of living improved in the now-developed countries with substantial impact on demand for variety in food basket. Ultimately, the local became global which transformed the food economy around the world.

However, there were divergent effects of the development elsewhere. Some countries were able to reap productivity benefit from the surge in finances and technological diffusion under the Green Revolution while many others were left out not being able to compete in the market on quality, ensured delivery, and prices.

The crowded out, mostly living in the less developed countries, either fell into net food importers club or remained food importers with never-ending struggle to move out of the food insecurity trap. In addition, especially in Africa, the thinking that industry must be promoted at the expense of agriculture, led to stagnation of growth in agriculture which ultimately adversely affected the industry as well.

Such ambivalent developments set a stage for global inequalities in production and consumption of food around the world as well as within societies and different players in economy. Some studies argue that a host of factors, including agriculture and land management policies, and large scale industrial-food companies limited the space for small farmers and, thus, destroyed the local systems of subsistence farming, leaving people food insecure amid plenty of food production.

In the absence of a consistent human development approach and active labour policies, the economies could not sufficiently integrate people from farms to high-end modern sector of the economy which required skilled and educated human resources. The human insecurity which emerged from coordination failures of the government and under-developed private sector created a number of problems ranging from unplanned urbanization to conflicts of ethno-political nature.

However, the world is a place of ‘hunger amidst plenty’ as Amartya Sen calls it. Currently, in the words of Watts and Goodman, with global demand and internationalisation of the agro-food industry, the giant food companies and large retailers have aggressively transformed world agro-food economy. Now the designer organic vegetable serves the tables of the rich. On the contrary, in 2009, the world witnessed one billion people going hungry owing to price and supply shocks in food sector.

The Oxfam, in ‘Nourish South Asia – GROW a Better Future for Regional Food Justice’ has argued that the current food crisis has some windows of opportunity in which some seeds of change can be sown. The report argues that South Asia is actually passing through three challenges.

The first is equity challenge which hands over land, food, and power in few hands. The second is production challenge which needs strengthening of productive capacity in agriculture to respond to population and growing demand for food. It also eyes for the need of effective human development strategies to attain productivity growth amongst the small farmers.

The third is resilience challenge which is testing the resilience of social and physical infrastructure under climate change and disaster situations amid supply side constraints and food price volatility. To respond effectively, the report suggests that a new vision in South Asia must guarantee the universal right to food, support smallholder agriculture, protect against climate change, and improves regional cooperation. One form of regional cooperation is to have a SAARC food bank.

While the above-mentioned reports have both the elements of warning and opportunities, it must be noted that in countries like Pakistan the food price escalation can worsen the poverty situation as well. The fact is that food is a major item of household budgets of the people living close to poverty line. It has been estimated that a 10 percent increase in food prices can lead to 2.2 percent increase in poverty while a 30 percent increase to 6.7 percent of poverty.

While the province of Sindh has witnessed 50 percent destruction in its agriculture produce owing to floods, it must be urgent and important for the policy makers to pay a serious heed to the advocacy by civil society organisations. Otherwise, a food insecure population is a more conflict-prone entity which Pakistan cannot afford.

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