Climate Change and Security

Food Insecurity in Pakistan, A Chronic and Widespread Issue

A large portion of the Pakistani population facing chronic food stress and malnutrition are often overlooked, both domestically and internationally. In an interview with Dr. Abid Qaiyum Suleri, Executive Director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and Advisor to the government of Pakistan on food security, Arda Ilgazli looks at the scope of the food security situation in Pakistan.


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the worldwide number of chronically undernourished individuals has increased from 777 million (2015) to 815 million in 2016. Pakistan, in particular, has been stricken by food insecurity, with the number of undernourished people at 37.6 million in 2014-2016, up from 35.7 million in 2004-06.

In this context, Arda Ilgazli interviewed Dr. Abid Qaiyum Suleri, Executive Director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and advisor to the government of Pakistan on food security. Dr. Suleri earned his PhD in food security from University of Greenwich, UK. Prior to joining SDPI in 2009, he had served as Head of Program, Oxfam GB, Pakistan. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of Business Management Sciences, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, and is serving on the Board of Studies of various public and private sector universities in Pakistan. Dr. Suleri represented Pakistan in various official delegations, including COP21 (Morocco 2016); COP20 (Paris 2015); Rio+20 UNSD Summit (Rio 2012) and WTO Hong Kong Ministerial Conference in 2005. He also represented civil society at the Doha and Cancun Ministerial Conferences of WTO (2001 and 2003) as well as World Food Summit. He has conducted intensive research on issues like resilient livelihoods, food security, regional trade, climate change and political economy of development. He delivers lectures on different aspects of sustainable development to parliamentarians, academia, government officials, journalists, and development practitioners. He is an acclaimed writer and besides publishing in academic journals also contributes his policy analysis on sustainable development issues to print and electronic media.

How would you characterize Pakistan’s current food security situation?

It’s quite grim. UNICEF’s National Nutrition Survey found that 58.6 percent of Pakistan’s population is malnourished and food insecure. But if you use the standard definition of poverty (of subsisting on less than $2 a day), then up to 70 percent of the population meets the criterion.

What are key indicators for food security?

The three pillars of food security are: 1) the physical availability of food, which is either production or availability in the markets; 2) economic access to food, which is the consumer’s ability to buy food; and 3) food utilization, which includes access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities.

Pakistan’s worst indicator right now is food utilization. Almost half of the population is without clean drinking water, and 45 percent are without proper sanitation facilities. Combined with repeated floods and droughts, 71-75 percent of the population is suffering from poor utilization of food.

You write that 22 percent of the elite own 85 percent of Pakistan’s farmland. How important is land reform to improving food security?

Inaction on land reform has skewed ownership and hindered utilization, which affects the availability of food. But land reform isn’t on the government’s agenda and hasn’t been attempted since Bhutto Sr.’s government.

Unfortunately, most policymakers deny food security is an issue. They only look at the food production index, which shows Pakistan as a top producer of wheat and dairy. This index ignores the larger picture.

Does food insecurity explain the instability in the FATA region and Waziristan?

Poverty is one of the root causes of insecurity in those regions. My data shows that FATA and Waziristan are among the most food insecure and drought-affected regions in Pakistan. Terrorist leaders have taken advantage of this insecurity by offering would-be suicide bombers cash payments or a social-security fund for their families.

How can the international community improve Pakistan’s food security?

The international agencies have good priorities, but they’re unable to engage in long-term food security efforts. Recent droughts and floods have steered their efforts towards rebuilding and rehabilitation. But an effective long-term strategy will require greater integration and coordination among all partners.

What reforms will improve food security in Pakistan?

In the short term, we need to strengthen social safety nets for food-insecure people. For example, under Prime Minister Gilani, the government created the ‘Zero Hunger’ program. ‘Zero Hunger’ would identify extremely food insecure districts and provide nutritional supplements to breastfeeding mothers and pregnant women. But the program wasn’t implemented because the then Supreme Court suspended the government.

In the long term, we need to look at how we view the security paradigm. I keep saying there are four levels of security: 1) global; 2) regional; 3) national; and 4) human security. Unfortunately, like many other developing countries, Pakistan has focused on the first three levels at the expense of the fourth. But if we address human security, it will ensure security at all other levels.

While the issue of food insecurity is a longstanding one, Pakistan continues to face an uphill battle as it lacks cohesive policy on food poverty. With the overall prevalence of undernourishment estimated to be at 18%, access to adequate food is expected to continue to be an issue. Even though the country has made progress in its efforts to eradicate hunger, there still seems to be very little attention paid to issues of malnutrition. International NGOs and food programs continue to work with local institutions to alleviate issues of food poverty and malnutrition. However, the government will need to make a concerted effort to formulate policy around food insecurity. Once adequate policies are put in place to bring the population out of the throes of hunger, other security and poverty issues can be solved simultaneously.

Arda Ilgazli is a negotiations analyst at the Ontario Ministry of Health and Longterm Care. He previously served in various policy roles at the Ontario Ministry of Education, Ontario Treasury Board and the Cabinet Office. 

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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