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July 9, 2020

A food insecure world

Opinion

July 9, 2020

With its powerful potential to disrupt all global activities, the Covid-19 pandemic is causing a major humanitarian crisis, threatening the food security and nutrition of millions of people around the world.

It is pivotal to point out that millions were already suffering from food insecurity before the pandemic hit us. Unless swift action is taken, we could see a global food emergency – affecting people from all walks of life. Such massive food disruption, unprecedented in scale and nature, can result in consequences we are not ready to face.

Pakistan is no exception here. Being a country where around 37 percent of the population was already food insecure, Pakistan must prepare itself to tackle a major food crisis which is already flaring up in a very dangerous manner.

Globally, the World Food Programme (WFP) has categorically warned that the Covid-19 crisis will ratchet up the number of people facing acute food insecurity in 2020 to a whopping 265 million from 130 million people in 2019. Such disruptions in the food supply chains will only debilitate our fight against the pandemic. Even before the pandemic showed its dangerous potential, one out 10 people were already food insecure. But now the pandemic is intensifying global food insecurity. Clearly, the world is not ready to face a threat of this magnitude.

Pakistan has a population with the highest malnutrition rates in the world – women and children being the most vulnerable. Nearly 8 out of 10 children do not have access to proper food. Unfortunately, today Pakistan is even more vulnerable to food insecurity because we have little or no capacity to absorb the economic aspects of this global health crisis.

Given the abysmal performance of the federal government in handling the Covid-19 crisis, one should prepare for the worst. In its highly dubious budget for 2020-21, the federal government even neglected the key agriculture sector, which had been given the utmost priority by all world governments amid this pandemic.

While Covid-19 is disrupting existing food supply chains, there is another alarming development. The locust infestations have the potential to wipe out more livelihoods than Covid-19, and worsen food security in Pakistan. What is even more appalling is that the new locust invasion has the potential to cause losses of Rs600 billion to the Pakistani economy, while 54 districts in Pakistan have already been drastically affected.

As Pakistan is an agrarian economy, the agriculture sector easily contributes a massive 20 percent to our country’s GDP. But today this vital sector faces an unprecedented threat by the new locust invasion. The two key crops facing the biggest threat are cotton and rice. They alone contribute a whopping $2.2 billion to Pakistan’s foreign exchange. Surely, our vulnerable economy cannot afford a calamity of this magnitude.

Not many are familiar with the fact that even before the pandemic had hit us Pakistan was a country where 40 percent of food was being wasted. These statistics are extremely appalling, especially where food insecurity is looming large. We must ensure that a constructive and systematic system is introduced, where extra food is directly transported to shelter homes, and work towards feeding the most food insecure population.

The WHO has explicitly stated that national unity is key in defeating the Covid-19 pandemic. The same applies for the looming food crisis, which will have disastrous effects on socio-economic conditions of all citizens of Pakistan. All provinces must be on the same table when it comes to the greater good of the country. The federal government must understand that early response and inter-provincial coordination are critical elements for battling the locust invasion and intensifying the food crisis.

The Pakistanis suffering the most during this pandemic are the poor and vulnerable daily wage workers, whose livelihoods face an unprecedented threat. Special attention must be given to this segment of our society through social welfare and philanthropic activities. We spend around one percent of our GDP on charity – numbers which are similar to the ones in the UK and Canada – but surely we can do more to help the needy.

More than anything, we need the implementation of the National Food Security Policy 2018, which focuses on increasing agricultural output by four percent every year, and also gives special attention to agriculture research. As agriculture remains the backbone of our economy, we must ensure that productivity and efficiency is improved through proper planning, extensive research and application of the latest technology.

The Covid-19 crisis, climate trauma and now the locust invasion could collapse Pakistan’s existing food system. The undeniable link between the pandemic and food crisis must not go unnoticed. Swift and constructive measures must be introduced to mitigate our looming food crisis, but that can only happen when all provinces are united for the country’s greater good. In this moment of crisis, we must be ready to face the imminent food crisis and act now.

The writer is a member of the Sindh Assembly.