Social side of food insecurity


December 10, 2014 – BR Report –

Successive governments in Pakistan have been fond of taking credit for high agriculture produce, especially in staple crops like wheat, rice and sugarcane. But they are usually clueless about why, then, Pakistan has very high incidence of food insecurity. Various estimates converge towards a damning indictment that Pakistans food insecurity rate is more than 50 percent – that is, every second Pakistani is food insecure – and that the incidence is growing due to population growth and economic hardships.

Many people now realize that it is fallacious to argue that high staple production will inevitably lead to optimal consumption in the society. But the problems run deeper than that. The ongoing three-day SDPI conference in Islamabad (Pathways to Sustainable Development) prominently placed food security in its agenda. Yesterdays food security sessions yielded several insights on social dimensions of the problem.

Some glaring problems stand out. First is the gender disparity dimension. Almost half of Pakistans population is female and roughly the same the incidence of food insecurity. There could be some correlation between these two variables in a patriarchal society like Pakistans, though there is no study to pinpoint whether a relationship exists or how strong the association is.

But experts point out that low-income and low-educated households tend to prioritize their food baskets for male household members, who are seen as the main breadwinners. Beyond affecting the female populations ability to be active members of the society, what this household-level inequity does, is that it leaves females food-deficient, which sets up the stage where newborns may also be vitamin-deficient. Result could be in various forms of malnutrition that later haunt a whole generation of kids.

Second is the perennial nature of conflicts and disasters in Pakistan which threaten any hard-earned gains made towards food access and poverty alleviation. For instance, floods in Punjab and Sindhs plains and rangelands are now occurring almost every year. The governments have largely been negligent in disaster-risk-reduction and post-event rehabilitation response.

But part of the blame also lies with the affectees who continue to refuse to settle away from flood-prone danger zones or refuse to evacuate when floods are about to hit their establishments. That behaviour is explained due to the tough socioeconomic conditions of affectees, who are more likely to be marginalised people. Deluged communities mean that people have to take shelter far away with limited food availability (if they e lucky).

Third is the social influence of the mythical or real “middleman”. Despite substantial increases in the support prices for wheat and other staples since 2008, the farmers organizations are suggesting that small growers are yet to see the price impact on their sales. Meanwhile, city dwellers have faced the brunt of high prices for flour, sugar, rice and vegetable.

Between hungry growers and wary urbanites is the middleman and his squeeze, experts say. That middleman is definitely entrenched in farmlands on one hand, and in power corridors on the other. But the status quo has probably gone on for so long because small farmers haven    been able to, for whatever reasons, come around to the idea of farming collectives on a large scale. Maybe growers should be more collaborative for their common good.

The concluding point here is that yes, the government should take the major blame here for a population that is increasingly growing but not getting adequate calorific intake. But that alone cannot adequately explain the whole problem. There are social dimensions at work too, few of which are highlighted above. The state should reflect and act on the grave food insecurity issues, but so should the society.

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