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Fighting Pakistan’s Growing Food Insecurity Crisis

Unless something is done now, climate change will exacerbate Pakistan’s lethargic agricultural growth and lead to further food insecurity, warns Aisha Khan.
Updated 06 May, 2024 04:20pm

The year 2023 ended with a climate conference in Dubai to mark the 28th convening of the Conference of Parties. The meeting was the first Global Stocktake, after the Paris Agreement of 2015, to assess the state of global climate and its impact on present and future life systems on planet Earth.

The vision for a universal and liveable planet is not possible without ensuring a sustainable food production and distribution system that is just, equitable and orderly, as well as affordable and accessible to all.

Currently, the world is embroiled in a rolling food crisis where 2.4 billion people (nearly a third of humanity) are moderately or severely food insecure, with women and girls bearing the brunt, accounting for almost 60% of the hunger-stricken population. Hunger is on the rise, affecting 800 million people worldwide, with challenges to agricultural productivity also increasing. Each day that delays emission reductions means exposing more people to food insecurity. As the planet continues to warm, food systems will come under increasing stress, setting in motion a chain of events that will reinforce a negative feedback loop.

Current farming practices are responsible for a third of all greenhouse gases (GHG). They are also responsible for eroding natural resources (water, soil and pollinator populations) and increasing risks from zoonosis and antimicrobial resistance. Meanwhile, family farms and smallholders (608 million globally) receive a fraction of the sector’s profits.

Standing at this critical juncture, it is important to put things into perspective and look for solutions that reduce GHG emissions from the agriculture sector and, at the same time, keep production levels adequate to meet people’s dietary needs. This challenge will require an approach that combines healthy, affordable and sustainable diets with systems in place that tackle food waste, restore natural systems, boost investment in ecologically beneficial and regenerative agriculture practices, and include agroecology as an integral part of managing all future food systems. Farmers need to be rewarded more fairly and their skills harnessed to transform food systems. An equitable approach can help improve livelihoods, tackle environmental degradation and provide food security. However, achieving these outcomes requires a massive uplift in investments from the public and private sectors, including smallholder farmers, who receive only 1.7% of total global climate finance. The world’s biggest emitters of agricultural methane and users of mineral fertilisers should lead by agreeing to cuts in the amount of methane emitted by their farming systems by 2030 and reducing losses of reaction nitrogen by 50% by the same date.

Agriculture is hugely dependent on weather patterns and climatic conditions. Crops that rely heavily on seasonal precipitation, specific temperature ranges and soil conditions will be affected more severely by stark variations and sudden changes in the climate. Similarly, heat-sensitive and water-intensive crops will suffer a setback due to sudden changes in factors that determine the quality and quantity of yield.

For Pakistan, the challenge is amplified by many other factors that contribute to the emerging crisis. Each has its unique constraints that need to be addressed separately but simultaneously to avoid a polycrisis.

The unsustainable population growth rate of 2.55% is the biggest obstacle to food security. It throws a spanner in the attempt to balance supply with demand. In 1981, wheat production in Pakistan was 12 million tons, with a population of 84 million. Today, production is 28 million tons, but an increase in population by 187% (241 million) has rendered the 133% increase in yield redundant. The rampant use of agricultural land without any agroecological studies to guide practices has resulted in suboptimal productivity and the waste of natural resources. Under the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, low yields will become lower under a changing climate, with serious implications for food security.

As a lower-riparian, single-basin country, Pakistan relies heavily on the flows of the River Indus for irrigated agriculture. The quantity and quality of water are both under increasing threat from global warming. The Indus derives over 40% of its water from snow and glacial melt, making its flow more susceptible to climate change. The abundance of water that results from accelerated melting will result in flooding, while water scarcity will lead to drought and desertification. Both are detrimental to agriculture and will contribute to the food crisis. Mountain communities that rely on melted glacier water for agriculture are already witnessing the impact of changes in the timing and quantity of water. As the phenomenon hits country agriculture, the threat to food security will mount.

Reports by experts, including modelling projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warn of stark changes in the Hindukush, Himalaya and Karakoram mountains. South Asia warming more rapidly than the rest of the world will put 250 million people who rely directly on the Hindukush, Himalaya and Karakoram mountain system at risk and indirectly impact another 1.8 million.

In Pakistan, the increase in population and the decrease in water flow will have serious consequences for food production. Agriculture in arid and semi-arid geographies requires very careful planning to ensure that food systems remain sustainable. Pakistan needs to be mindful and plan carefully.

The Country Climate and Development Reports prepared by the World Bank provide a roadmap for transforming the agriculture-food system. The recommendations include delinking agriculture from practices that push water and land resources beyond safe thresholds, causing the degradation of ecosystems across landscapes; managing and equipping irrigation and drainage systems to cope with climate extremes; removing inefficient and inequitable subsidies; improving services essential for increasing productivity – research, extension and the development of markets; and finally, removing impediments such as skewed ownership and tenure insecurity.

As we move forward, it is important to connect the dots between food, water and population to create a sustainable model. Maladaptation in agriculture is not a stand-alone issue. It is closely linked to peace, stability and security. The rising cost of food will increase already high rates of stunting in the country, trigger displacements due to climate-induced disasters, result in demographic shifts with enhanced pressure on cities, increase poverty, and create conditions for conflict in society. It is in Pakistan’s interest to take corrective measures before it is too late. The new government has the opportunity to leverage the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) to reform the agriculture and livestock sectors and make them more robust and resilient.

Notwithstanding the challenges faced by the agri food sector, it still presents a strong case for catalysing growth in the rural economy and boosting productivity and exports. With calibrated management and the right mix of policies, partnerships and implementation strategies, the agriculture sector offers Pakistan the best opportunity to achieve its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for 2030 and develop the macro-fiscal stability it needs to cope with climate shocks.

Aisha Khan is CE, Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.