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How to achieve food security?      

FOOD security has been a global concern. At times, the world was simply short of food supplies. The infamous Bengal famine was not a case of shortage but that of greed and mismanagement. This country had seen food rationing during 1960s.The situation changed after green revolution and thereafter it remained a problem of ‘reach’.

Lately, the food security has emerged as a complex phenomenon. There is pressure on grains due to competition with oil crops including those for edible oils as in Pakistan and bio-fuels from corn and mustard oils in the West. The demand for animal and plant protein has increased which causes cropping competition to grain crops by fodders and edible legumes.The land and water resources are stressed and population keeps growing.

The climate change has started to make its impact. The cropping patterns needs readjustment to cope with the change. Severe droughts in Australia, a major wheat supplier of the world, have restricted global trading in grains. The war risks to some countries have pressured them to build strategic reserves.

Wronged estimates and mismanagement are also part of the problem. Escalations in the cost of production have restricted the ability of farmers in developing countries to make seasonal investments leading to stagnant and declining yields. In case of wheat, we are also faced with new disease threats. Recent rains and hail storms in Punjab have damaged the standing crop. The yield expectations from the current crop are not likely to beat the last years’ crop.

A part of the problem has roots in lack of sufficient investment in research and development (R&D) for agriculture. There is only one major variety (cultivar) of wheat which has dominated the production scene since 1991 and that has become susceptible to rust disease. Delay in replacement of one variety of wheat is partly to blame for the crisis.

The terms of trade have also discouraged agricultural growth. While we can continue making long-term plans and justify investment in the agriculture sector, it is an emergency situation where one should act to minimise ‘shock’ by reducing the known/preventable losses.

Wheat harvesting in Sindh is almost over and it should be in full swing in Punjab which produces the bulk of the crop. Harvest and post-harvest losses of wheat and other grains range between 15 and 18 per cent, enough to match the expected import, provided the said losses are prevented.

An empirical study undertaken at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad (UAF), is summarised in the following tables. Wheat and rice and to some extent maize have mutuality. To a certain extent, surplus in one case can compensate the shortage of other grains. This article focuses on wheat alone. In case of wheat, the immediate concern should be to attend the harvest operations and then plan for the rest of post-harvest and marketing chain.

To manage preventable losses in harvesting and post-harvest activities is a challenge. If managed properly, every reduction in losses will be a corresponding gain.

Aggressive and effective wheat procurement by the government is not likely to work due to the limitation of procurement price. The market remains wide open to the market forces and to unscrupulous elements. The government can still help the farmers by proper weighing and ensuring fair and timely payment in an open market.

Storage is an important factor in the marketing of wheat. The storage base has to be evenly spread at farmers, traders and flour miller’s level. The urban consumers have left the practice of storing wheat at household level due to non- availability of local milling facilities (chakkis), shifting more reliance on wheat flour supplied in the open market.

A campaign may be launched to revive the old practice of buying and storing wheat at household level. The financial support should also be provided for the promotion of local milling facilities. In the long run farmers could be facilitated (credit on commodity) to store their crop as much as they can in order to fetch high prices of their produce before next harvest.

The storage of wheat needs to be identified from hoarding. The government should enhance its storage capacity by hiring private storages and keep record of wheat storage in the private sector. Storage limits be imposed. Globally, there are 25 million tons of wheat reserves against the required quantity of 60 million tons, a point to note and demands the sealing of borders to stop smuggling. As a follow up, there should be continuous monitoring and audit of movement of wheat from the government and private storage to the flour mills and from the flour mills to the consumer. Specific measures are needed to be taken which include:

Inter- and intra-province controlled movement of wheat as per government policy through out the year.

Wheat buyers/traders be registered who declare the purchase and stock position on daily basis.

Reliable estimates of wheat production and consumption for the year 2008-09 are needed badly to avoid the repeat of last year. The obvious gap has to be met by timely arrangements for wheat import.

It is reported that the purchasing power of the poor has declined by 50 per cent, thanks to inflation. The poor people spend up to 75 per cent or more of their income on food items. Price of wheat has quadrupled in the international market. The wheat price in Pakistan is still fairly low. Measures should be taken to increase the purchase power of the poor against high wheat prices (like food coupon, ration cards etc.)

The wet wheat harvest season is alarming. That can cause a range of problems.

The future: Input prices have been increasing disproportionate to the output prices. Terms of trade are against agriculture. We should make them favourable for agriculture to ensure food security. The government should put a halt on the prices of input and make sure that farmers get right price for the produce. Rigorous campaign and monitoring of wheat cultivation should be launched, to ensure sufficient acreage under wheat in the next crop season.

If there is one item to be fixed, that should be the availability of quality seed and other inputs to the farmer at right price and at the right time. Soil and water need attention as a next immediate step.

The government maintains a buffer stock of around 0.5 million tons. Changing consumption pattern and increased demand calls for substantial increase in this buffer stock to the tune of around two million tons for ensuring the food security. Futures market concept can be introduced on experimental basis.

As a long-term policy, investment in research and education is a must to have new knowledge and technology for science based agriculture. The monoculture of one wheat variety was mentioned earlier. The emergence of new wheat pests (aphids and jassids) deserves a closer look.

There should be short training courses on the post-harvest grain management for the in-service manpower of the food department. There is also room for developing basic training courses for new entrants of the food handling agencies, realising the fact that grain handling at the post-production stage is a technical job. The UAF has the capacity to offer these services.

In summary, urgent attention is needed to manage the preventable losses during harvesting and afterwards. That should be followed by a strict surveillance of marketing channels. The durable solution lies in R&D investments. There is a direct linkage between food security, poverty and rural development. Meticulous investment in agriculture will have mitigating effects on rural and urban poor, resulting in socio-economic stability and large political dividends for the government.

The writer is the Vice-Chancellor, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad.
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Courtesy: Business Recorder

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