Farmers Warn Of Impending Food Security Crisis

Farmers in Pakistan are sounding the alarm about a looming food security crisis due to a decline in global wheat production and fertiliser shortages

Farmers Warn Of Impending Food Security Crisis

Pakistan, like many countries across the globe, is staring at severe national food insecurity in the coming years owing to the global decline in wheat production. This has some people worried that ugly scenes, such as a stampede at a flour distribution point last year that resulted in the death of 24 women, could become far more common.

Wheat, a major crop grown in Pakistan to cater to domestic demand and the odd exports, is grown in the winter months (Rabi crop). Its cultivation in Pakistan starts in the middle of October and is harvested in March.

However, the cultivation of the crop this year will prove to be a challenge. The government has yet to ensure the availability of agriculture inputs such as fertiliser in the form of Diammonium phosphate (DAP) and urea.

Moreover, the country has already been struggling with yield. With its population increasing by a whopping 30 million in a short period of five years, with 207 million per the census in 2017 and 241 million per the digital census carried out in 2023, the country is struggling to produce enough wheat and other crops domestically to meet the rising demand.

Last year, the country faced a shortfall of over two million tons of wheat. Experts believe that this shortage could rise to three million tons by 2024.

Climate change poses another risk to Pakistan's agricultural output. Issues such as rural-urban migration, greying of brown and green lands along with systemic issues in providing farmers access to inputs and financing, including black marketing, issues in the quality of DAP and Urea apart from their availability and rising prices, all pose additional risks to the agricultural sector -- which still forms the backbone of the country's population despite its rapidly falling gross domestic production (GDP) and export contributions.

All of these factors point to a rising threat of an extreme shortage of essential commodities in a country already plagued by rampant inflation.

Global shortage

The world was severely impacted by the war in Ukraine - the world's bread basket. So much so that despite the opposition of the Western bloc to Russia, they were willing to engage and come to pliant terms on access to Ukraine's vast production of wheat and other food products.

But as the war drags on and with global climate change events, there are fears it could eventually impact global wheat products.

Even the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has lowered its forecast for global wheat supply by 7.2 million metric tons to 1.05 billion due to an expected decline in production for Australia, Canada, Argentina and the European Union.

Food security precautions are necessary

Regarding wheat production in Pakistan, Pakistan Kisan Ittehad President Khalid Mehmood Khokhar said that the situation could lead to a national food security crisis unless the relevant authorities take precautionary measures.

"Cultivation of wheat will start from October 15, and so far, growers are facing issues of access to Urea and DAP," he said, adding that the reason behind the unavailability of urea was blackmarketing. 

The unavailability of these critical items at controlled rates creates problems for farmers, who are also plagued with rocketing inflation.

DAP and urea are locally produced. Of its 6.2 million tonnes annual demand, Pakistan produces 5.2 million tonnes of the nitrogen-based fertiliser Urea. DAP, though, is another story. Despite the fact that Pakistan ranks amongst the top producers of agricultural products, including wheat, sugarcane, rice, and cotton, it produces less than a million tonnes of DAP annually. By comparison, neighbouring India is amongst the top producers of DAP in the world, with 3.84 million tonnes, or nearly 40% of global production. Even an arid country like Saudi Arabia produces more DAP than Pakistan.

But with gas, a major component of the DAP production process and Pakistan having access to very little of it, Khokhar feared that the suspension of gas supply to the two main DAP and Urea manufacturing plants could further aggravate the situation.

Consequently, Pakistan would have to import agricultural inputs, resulting in increased costs of production and thus feeding into the crushing inflation cycle.

It may be noted here that the previous government had temporarily shut down two urea factories by cutting off their gas supplies on January 4.

The two plants produce around 77,000 tonnes of urea per month. Khokhar feared that the closure of these two is bound to create a shortage of fertiliser in the country and disadvantage the farmers and the country.

He appreciated the recent announcement made by Caretaker Federal Commerce, Industries and Production Minister Gohar Ijaz that there will not be a shortage of fertilisers in the country for the upcoming Rabi crop. 
Furthermore, the minister had guaranteed that gas supply to the fertiliser industry would be maintained at full capacity, assuring uninterrupted production. 
He said the government should fulfil its obligations and avoid a shortage of fertiliser. 

Khokhar added that the abundant availability of fertiliser alone will not solve their problems. Rather, he hoped that the government would work to save the farmers from the exploitation of middlemen and regulate prices.

The current situation does not just have small farmers worried but large landowners as well. 

Fiaz Hussain Baloch, who owns thousands of hectares of cultivable land in Punjab and is considered to be one of the major growers of the province, if not the country, said that the issue of wheat shortage can only be addressed if precautionary measures are taken now.

Chaudhary Hassan Akram, who is also part of the Pakistan Kissan Ittehad, said that to meet Pakistan's growing requirements for affordable food for a rapidly growing population, there is a need to balance the use of fertilisers as a prerequisite to enhance per acre yield of wheat.

He said balance in using fertilisers will help achieve national wheat demand.

View from the wheat fields

Small growers said that there is an urgent need for the government to address the issue of fertiliser prices, which have increased manifold in recent years.

They said that the government needs to ensure it is available at uniform prices across the country to ensure that farmers can continue their work competitively and reap the rewards they deserve.

Currently, they said that urea is provided by the industry to the market for Rs3,210 - Rs3,411 while it can go up to as much as Rs3,595 per bag. However, middlemen control supply and have hiked up prices to as much as Rs4,500 per bag, a difference of Rs800 to Rs1,000 on average per bag.