tenant farmers.jpg
Tenant farmers salvage rice crops following floods in 2010. (source)

Hunger seemingly affects the poor and marginalised groups of society. It is often labelled as a humanitarian issue, which warrants fulfilment on compassionate grounds. However, in Pakistan, to what extent is the problem isolated to urban slums and the tribal villages of Waziristan? During this post, I will be exploring the causes of food insecurity in Pakistan and demonstrate how it manifests socially to affect every Pakistani’s life.

Earlier in 2009, hundreds of furious and unemployed residents ambushed a bakery in the city of Faisalabad. Pelting rocks through windows, the rioters stormed into the bakery, raided cash registers and then grabbed all the food they could find. On the September of the same year, newspapers described “An act of charity turned into a tragedy” when 20 women were crushed to death in a stampede whilst attempting to obtain rice rations. These incidents illustrate the disturbing nature of the hunger problem in the country. [1]

As the deadline for the millennium development goals in reducing world hunger by half approached in 2015, many countries raced to the finish line as Pakistan paddled backwards. Food insecurity increased from affecting 45% of the districts in 2003 to 61%. Inflation rose to unprecedented levels, excluding millions from the food chain.[2] After terrorism, hunger became the largest to threat to the country.[3]

Today 44% of Pakistani children suffer from the chronic form of undernutrition (stunting). This leads to a vicious cycle of adverse health outcomes and perpetuates poverty.[4] In addition to human misery, stunting has led to a hiatus in the country’s development. Economically, Pakistan loses 4% of its Gross Domestic Product per year, through the direct loss of a productive workforce due to undernutrition-related causes.[5]

The government of Pakistan has responded poorly to this crisis and little has been done to address the problem. Research shows that half of the food insecure population of Pakistan partake in extraordinary behaviours including bonded labour, selling organs, selling children and committing suicide from the guilt of being unable to support dependants.[1]

Another reason for concern is overlap between hotspots of food insecurity and militant activity. From the 13 districts defined as being severely food insecure, 11 lie under the control of the Taliban, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions.[1] People in these regions feel neglected by the government and these anti-elite feelings of resentment are exploited by militant groups, who motivate these people to commit horrendous attacks, offering social security in return. The interior minister of Pakistan estimates that a suicide bomber gets an advance payment of $120 000 enough to support their dependants. Although not the only cause of terror activity, food insecurity at an individual level has contributed to the violation of national security, which has impacted on the nation as a  whole.[1][6]

Food Insecurity in Pakistan – bit of an oxymoron

Pakistan strives with agricultural potential. Agriculture is central to the economy accounting for 60% of exported goods and employing 45% of the population.[7][8]

Map showing agricultural land use in Pakistan (source)

Although recurrent natural disasters and certain unsustainable farming practices such as monoculture undermine the agricultural potential, production of food is less of a concern.[9] The deficiencies lie in other aspects of food security, some of which are illustrated below:


Whilst all the above factors contribute, poverty and land distribution seem to be major causes of food insecurity in Pakistan.[6][10][11] A survey in Faisalabad found that 93% of the individuals admitted they struggled to afford food, whilst 80% the population of Thar fed their families through loans, which they were unable to pay for the next 5 years.[12] [13]This is unsurprising, as following the world food crisis in 2008, food prices in Pakistan failed to stabilise. In 2010 the price of wheat and rice- the two staple crops were still 30-50% higher than before the crisis and are increasing.[1]

The land distribution in Pakistan in particularly problematic, which calls for food sovereignty issues to be addressed. According to the World Bank, 2% of the households control 45% of the land, this constrains agriculture and potential livelihoods.[t] 70% of the population of Pakistan live in rural areas and heavily rely on land and agriculture for their livelihoods.[6] Since around half the farmers are tenants, rather than owners of land, they don’t hold the freedom to exercise their rights or enjoy the fruits of their labour. Landlessness due to feudalism is major causes of poverty and food insecurity in Pakistan.[6]

With Pakistan at the forefront of the ‘War on Terror’, it has become increasingly fashionable to mask social sector failures with the volatile security situation the country faces. Some claim defence expenditure has come at the expense of social spending, whilst others blame the displacement of people caused by military activity.[1] [2]Although these factors may have contributed, I feel these claims are largely exaggerated and constructed to scapegoat the civil government’s insufficiencies.

Since the birth of the country in 1947, the country’s politics has been plagued by a legacy of feudal families.[6] Politicians hold strong vested interests, which make land reforms an ‘elephant in the room’ issue. Consequently, hard-line causes of food insecurity and food sovereignty have been undermined.

It often said that “food insecurity anywhere, threaten peace where” and in the case of Pakistan this saying couldn’t be more than true. Going forward I feel the immediacy of the hunger issue in Pakistan needs to be recognised.Whilst the government prides over fortification programmes and conditional cash transfers, the crux of this problem lies at the structural level. If we really want to see sustainable change in hunger and grant the people of Pakistan their basic human right – we need land reforms and a government that takes a pro-poverty approach.

A cartoon depicting the patron-client relationship that keeps the rural working class trapped in poverty. (source)