World Food Day 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, out of the debris of World War II, on 16 October 1945. This year is a very special one – for FAO and for the global fight against hunger and malnutrition. It comes at a challenging time when the world is facing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic amidst multiple natural hazards shocks and transboundary pests.
Despite the achievements of the past, five years into the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger. The number of people affected by hunger globally has been slowly on the rise since 2014. FAO currently estimates that nearly 690 million people are hungry, the majority of them in Asia. This is an addition of 10 million people in one year and nearly 60 million in five years. Looking beyond starvation, over 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could further add 83 to 132 million food-insecure people worldwide. At the global level, the prevalence of food insecurity at a moderate or severe level is higher among women than men. The gender gap in accessing food increased from 2018 to 2019.
In Pakistan, the Prevalence of Undernourishment, which is an important indicator for measuring our progress on SDG 2 Zero Hunger, has slowly declined to 26 million Pakistanis in 2017-19, from about 33 million in 2003-04. Some of the gains achieved were however reversed by climate-related shocks, such as the floods of 2010-13, as well as more recent challenges of drought, cold, more floods, desert locusts and finally COVID-19 impacts. With all this to bear, we can expect a deterioration in Pakistan’s food security situation as we head towards the end of 2020 under a business as usual scenario.
Economic slowdowns due to lockdowns such as Pakistan experienced in 2019-20 tend to increase poverty, and poverty is closely interlinked with food insecurity. The shocks are consequently affecting poorer communities in Pakistan disproportionately, and pushing those in the most uncertain contexts deeper into poverty and hunger, with an important impact on the stability of access to adequate, safe and nutritious food for households through time. Access to food is also under threat for more vulnerable households because of food price fluctuations observed in a range of Pakistani markets since the onset of COVID-19.
Pakistan’s agricultural workers feed the country. Whether waged or self-employed, and whether working on their own or others’ land, they often face high levels of ‘working poverty’, malnutrition and poor health, and suffer from unsafe working environments, land tenure insecurity, and lack of labor protection. With low and irregular incomes and a lack of social support, many of them are compelled to continue working through the pandemic or after the recent floods, despite hazardous conditions. Many of these agricultural workers are women and are often unpaid for their work in the fields.
Food insecurity can lead to different manifestations of malnutrition. The kind of and relative amounts of food people eat, specifically, the quality of their diet, translates into how our body utilizes it and is directly linked with health and energy. In Pakistan, access to healthy, balanced diets is a challenge. Shifting to healthy diets can contribute to reducing health and climate-change costs because the hidden costs of these healthy diets are lower. The adoption of healthy diets can lead to a reduction of up to 97 percent in direct and indirect health costs and 41–74 percent in the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Dietary habits in Pakistan require realignment to more balanced, fresh and nutritious ingredients, by making a diverse range of foods more accessible to the poor and by educating everyone on the negative health consequences of a diet dominated by energy-dense, low-nutrient foods.
On food availability, Pakistan has fared well, with a 2.7 percent growth in the Agriculture sector in 2019-20 within an overall economic contraction of 0.4 percent. However, the growth was mostly due to livestock and three major crops. This relates to the world challenge of today where only nine plant species in the world account for 66 percent of crop production worldwide, despite over 30,000 known edible plants. Pakistan can do better at growing more diverse food.
If the pandemic has laid bare the fragility of agri-food systems, the precariousness of the agricultural labor force, the thin line that separates many families from destitution, there are solutions. In this WFD, we celebrate the countless and diverse hands and talents involved in feeding our community, our country, and our planet, and the food heroes – men and women – that have continued to grow, sustain and nourish us, together, and recognize more needs to be done: review the entire food supply chain in the context of the political economy that shapes trade, public expenditure and investments, and put small holder farmers at the center of it; government, civil society and private sector engage in collective efforts to ensure small holder farmers and off-farm ag-workers, women and men, can access financial resources, knowledge, technology and innovation to produce and move more, safer, and diversified food to improve livelihoods and diets; organize campaigns and leverage government-endorsed Pakistan Dietary Guidelines for Better Nutrition to promote healthy eating habits in the whole country; recognize the invisible labor of agriculture workers, especially women, in our food system; provide access to land to women and men small holder farmers; re-think federal and provincial policies and actions to tackle agriculture sector productivity, climate change and food systems transformation with ambition and urgency to ensure the ‘new normal’ is better. Call for and facilitate collective cross-sectoral action, global collaboration and solidarity to support the most vulnerable in times of shocks and crises.
Our future food systems need to ensure affordable and healthy diets for all, and decent livelihoods for food system workers, while preserving natural resources and biodiversity. This will help go a long way towards achieving Zero Hunger.