by Misbah Saba Malik
ISLAMABAD, Oct. 17 (Xinhua) -- Pakistan observed its 34th National Food Day on Tuesday as part of the World Food Day amid a worsening food shortage that affects a large portion of the country's population, particularly those in the rural areas.
In his message on the World Food Day, President Asif Ali Zardari said that the right to food for the people of Pakistan is enshrined in the Constitution and that the government is duty- bound to honor this fundamental right.
The theme of this year's National Food Day celebration was " Agricultural Cooperatives: Key to Feeding the World".
Pakistan is an agricultural country with 20,430,000 arable land and its agriculture sector accounts for about 21.2 percent of the country's GDP. The sector employs about 43 percent of the labor force. About 67.5 percent of Pakistan's population live in the rural areas and are directly involved in agriculture.
Despite all these facts, however, many Pakistanis suffer from malnutrition, scarcity of food, and hobbled by high price of food items. Even after 65 years of independence, the country has not achieved self-sufficiency in wheat, which is the basic food item of the people of Pakistan.
According to the latest National Nutrition Survey prepared by Pakistan Medical Research Council in January 2012, during the last six years, people with food insecurity in Pakistan has increased by 12 million while the number of those with severe food insecurity (consuming less than 1,700 kcal per day) has risen by 9. 6 million to 45.3 million, or roughly 28 percent of the country's total population.
Analysts said the government lacks proper strategy and planning to increase the per-hectare yield from the available arable land in the county. As a result, the country continues to import food items every year which are sold at high prices in the market, making it difficult for ordinary citizens to buy.
According to Muhammad Ibrahim Mughal, chairperson of Pakistan Agriculture Forum, Pakistan imported food items during the year 2011-12 worth 9.5 billion U.S. dollars. These food items included dry milk, vegetables, fruits, edible oil and other basic commodities that could have been easily produced in the country through proper government planning and support.
The main reason behind the low agricultural productivity in Pakistan is that the farmers are using old and outdated methods of agriculture.
Low quality of seeds, limited use of fertilizers and lack of irrigation facilities are the other major factors behind the low agricultural productivity in the country.
On top of this, there is the problem of over population in the country. With less food produced and plenty of mouths to feed, there is bound to be a food shortage.
In early July this year, President Zardari himself admitted that the country's population has reached 200 million and the population is likely to grow in the coming years.
According to figures released by Pakistan Agriculture Council, in year 2004-07 when Pakistan's population was around 154 million, the total available food for every individual per annum was 206 kg. From 2007-2009 when the population rose to 170 million, the food available per annum per person dropped to 194 kg. From 2010-12, it further dropped to 191 kg per annum per person when the population rose to 200 million.
Land erosion caused by flooding in the country also contributed to the food problem. Every year floods inundate large areas of arable land and destroy millions of dollars worth of crops.
For example, floods in 2010 have destroyed about 500,000 tons of wheat in Pakistan. In 2012, monsoon rains also destroyed thousands of tons of crops ready for harvest in the flood-affected areas.
Due to population explosion, the urban areas of the country are also expanding and converting agricultural lands into residential areas and industrial estates, thus reducing the areas planted to agricultural crops.
The influx of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has also aggravated the problem of food scarcity in the country. According to media reports, over 1.7 million Afghan refugees are now living in various areas of the country. They also consume food and exacerbate the already worsening food crisis.
The report by Pakistan's Agriculture Council said that total production of food crops, which include wheat, rice, maize, and barley had also reduced by 3 million tons during the last four years. All these are clear signals that if population growth rate is not controlled, Pakistan might face a serious famine in year 2018.
But Nazia Hamid, a senior researcher at Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi, said that the government can improve agricultural production in the country by employing state-of-the- art farming technologies, reducing costs of fertilizers and other inputs, and by promoting agricultural cooperatives.
There are state-owned agricultural banks in the country which provide loans and machinery to farmers on easy installments can facilitate their work and thus contribute in solving the food scarcity.
The government, through its Lady Health Workers program, has also stepped up its family planning program in order to curb population growth, especially in the rural areas.