In August, four UN agencies and the Government of Pakistan published the Pakistan Overview of Food Security and Nutrition for 2019, which represents the first time a country-level report of this kind has been produced for Pakistan. The report found that, although the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) and food insecurity is slowly declining in Pakistan, there are a number of worrying trends that may prevent further improvements to its food security. In particular, there is low resilience to external shocks, such as economic slowdowns and natural disasters.
Although food is widely available in Pakistan and recent years have seen excellent harvests, high levels of poverty and high food prices have led to alarming levels of food insecurity. Rates of malnutrition and chid stunting are among the highest in the world and more than half of the population faces some level of food insecurity. While levels of food insecurity are high today, they have fallen slightly over the last two decades. Between 2001-03, PoU was 25.8%, which had fallen to 20.3% by 2016-18. Pakistan’s recent progress in reducing PoU illustrates how vulnerable the country is to shocks. In the 2008-10 period, there was a pronounced increase in undernourishment, which was followed by a period of stagnation in progress. This occurred after a series of events that included several droughts, floods and a period of high inflation in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Pakistan has faced a number of shocks this year and the extent of the impact on food security is difficult to ascertain. Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted and the country’s economy looks set to stabilise after the lockdown (although the precarious state of Pakistan’s economy even before the crisis means any growth will likely be very gradual). This may not, however, translate into gains for Pakistan’s most vulnerable (and by extension, most food insecure). Unemployment has risen from 5.8 million people last year, to 6.65 million, pushing almost a million Pakistanis into a precarious financial situation.
In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, Pakistani food security has also been negatively affected by very high food price inflation. In early 2020, flour prices surged, reducing the affordability of Pakistan’s staple food. Wheat accounts for half of the calories consumed in Pakistan and its centrality to diets means that the poor are very vulnerable to increases in wheat prices.
Food price inflation has remained high this year and, although August saw a slight (0.3%) decline in flour prices compared to last month, prices are still 11.9% higher than in last August. Sugar, potatoes and onions have all significantly increased in price since last year and modest increases have also hit other food products. Overall, inflation in food prices in 2020 has been the highest since 2011-12.
Further disasters hit Pakistan’s agricultural areas this year, not only affecting the country’s food production, but also threatening livelihoods in Pakistan’s largest employment sector. There were severe drought conditions in much of Balochistan and some of Sindh provinces, while parts of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan-Administered Kashmir experienced unprecedented snowfall and rain, as well as avalanches. Fall armyworm has also caused havoc in agricultural areas, leading to the worst infestation in over 25 years and prompting the Pakistani Government to declare a national emergency in February.
Pakistan has managed to stabilise itself after the chaos of the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, but its poor resilience to shocks means that food security is likely to be an even greater issue for some time to come.