Pakistan's Food Security And Masood Khaddarposh's Unfinished Agenda

Pakistan's Food Security And Masood Khaddarposh's Unfinished Agenda
With per capita annual consumption of 125kg, viz-a-viz the global average of 68kg, wheat fulfils ~72% of Pakistanis’ daily caloric needs. Thus, its sustained supply is integral to our food security. This article is an attempt at a brief analysis of the pertaining supply chain and recommending a few corrective measures.    

Our pride in being an agricultural country having the world’s largest irrigation system and famous five rivers automatically generates a feeling of food security. However, our ranking at 80, with an overall score of 52.3, by the Global Food Security Index should be enough to give a reality check with Finland topping the list with a score of 85.3 and China and Russia, respectively, at 24 and 29 with corresponding scores of 73.7 and 69.3 -- despite severe challenges these countries face. 

History and current status   

A brief journey to the past reveals that by 1976 alone Pakistan had imported 1.8 Billion USD of agricultural products under PL-480 (Public Law 480). The program allowed buyers to purchase wheat from the US at concessional terms. 

Our annual wheat imports stood at 1.3 million tons by 1960. Although through high yielding Mexican varieties we observed a major upsurge of 48% in production in 1967-68, the imports continued in varying degrees. Between 1980 and 2000, area under wheat cultivation increased from 6.98 to 8.46 million hectares, production from 11.47 to over 21 million tons, yield from 1,643kg to 2,491kg per hectare. We still imported wheat for 16 of these 20 years. 

The current cultivated area for wheat is ~9.18 Million hectares which contributed 27.2 million tons this year. There appear to be hardly any expansion margins left in the area, while the demand (current: 26 million tons) is projected to reach ~31.5m tons in 2025 and above 34m tons by 2030. 

According to FAO, while Pakistan’s wheat yield in 2019 was 2.8 tons per hectare, for India, Bangladesh and China it was respectively 3.53 tons, 3.07 tons and 5.62 tons. Pakistan’s yield has mostly hovered at ~ 2.7 to 2.8 tons during the last 15 years. Thus the real margins lie in the yield.  

Major challenges 

Due to lack of modern grain storage silos and adequate capacity, at least ~ 14% of the grain production in Punjab alone is wasted. Studies estimate these losses to be even higher for the country. Pakistan has less than 6 million tons of storage capacity. Thus, large quantities end up getting exposed to rains, rats etc and consequently wasted due to improper storage. 

Lack of storage on the farm compels the farmers to distress selling. This is one of the driving factors for the nuisance value wielded by the middle men in the pertaining value chain. 

Also, with its current water availability of ~1000 cubic meters per person per year Pakistan is already a severely water stressed country. The main source of water for tillage is the canal irrigation system. 

60% of it goes to waste due to leakage, seepage and poor irrigation practices. 

The overriding challenge is the antediluvian structure of land ownership. More than 60% of the households in the rural part of Pakistan are completely landless. As to the farms; those less than an acre and 5 acres each, respectively, constitute 19% and 64% of the total number; though, correspondingly, covering only 1% and 19% of the total area. Thus, leaving aside the landless, even the small farmers remain severely handicapped with high production costs, low yields and negligible access to formal channels of credit. 

History reveals that what fundamentally ails our agriculture is the pending conclusion of the long overdue land reforms. Even Pakistan's history tells us that the awareness that resulted from the polarization over the note of dissent of Masood Khadarposh had resulted into a major political movement for land reforms in the early years of Pakistan. 

This note on the Hari Committee report of 1948 is an important part of our history. The committee was constituted in 1946 with the ostensible purpose of identifying the major travails of Sindh's peasants and recommending solutions to them. While the report recommended only cosmetic measures; Masood, a public servant and one of the committee members, recommended a package of major land reforms vide a separate note to it.  

While the movement was suppressed in the Western part, the mostly urban middle class, leadership of the then East Pakistan enacted the East Bengal Land Acquisition and Tenancy Act, 1950. It abolished the big estates and fixed the upper ceiling of 30 acres per family. This struck a deep wedge between the leaderships of the two parties, which later served as a catalyst in the ultimate parting of ways in 1971.   

Our neighbors 

While India’s population grew by ~4 times since 1947, its wheat production increased by ~16 times (103.59 MT in 2019). Similarly, China's grain production (~133.6 MT in 2019) increased by ~9.4 times since 1961 with only a 2.1 times increase in the population. In comparison, despite the fact that Pakistan’s population almost doubled in the last 30 years, wheat production increased only by ~72%.    

What is to be done?

We need to target rapid increment of yield and population control. Moreover, to avoid water wastage and manage its shortage, the canals should be lined with concomitant introduction of water conservation technologies. This would need a network of skills’ based training schools in modern methods of farming and focused efforts along R&D.     

Similarly, the much criticized role of middlemen would continue till adequate storages are available to the farmers and they are economically empowered. The shortest route to that empowerment lies in land reforms. These reforms should include, besides fixation of ceiling on ownership and distribution of freed-up land among the landless, protection of rights of the tenants and appropriate remuneration for farm labour. 

In addition, carefully regulated, corporate farming can help in radicalizing our agriculture in terms of modernization, skills’ base, R&D, yields etc. Also, the time tested method of cooperative farming provides a ready solution to the large percentage of small farmers. In a cooperative, members generally pool their land and other resources. This allows them access to formal credit lines and economy of scale over the entire value chain. It is the fastest route of wealth creation and prosperity for the said farmers. 

Once empowered, they can send their own representatives to the parliament and be the masters of their own destiny. Agricultural cooperatives of various combinations are a global norm. In the EU alone they had a turnover of 237 Billion Euros in 2019. 

Thus, no long-term ‘tabdeeli’ with respect to food security is possible without unleashing the real potential of rural Pakistan, which can only be achieved with the aforementioned steps including the fulfillment of the unfinished agenda of Masood Khadarposh.