Sat, 25 Jan 2003

The fate of our farmers

Zubeida Mustafa The Dawn Asia News Network Karachi

Food security is fast emerging as a major challenge for third world countries and that includes Pakistan. It was not sheer coincidence that two meetings held on the same day last week focused on identical issues and shed light on some stark realities.

In Karachi, Shirkat Gah held a conference on food security and economic sovereignty. The same day in Islamabad, the Mahbubul Haq Human Development Center launched its annual Human Development in South Asia report for 2002 focusing on agriculture and rural development.

For agricultural societies like ours it is not just the quantum of food produced that determines the level of progress and development. The more important aspect of the matter is how this food is distributed so that no one remains hungry.

There is also the basic need for equitable distribution of wealth generated by the food sector. The fact of the matter is that all the progress made in food production notwithstanding, the quality of life of the common people has not improved visibly. In some ways there has been an actual deterioration. What is more disquieting is that worse is in store.

Food impacts on the life of people in three ways. First, it must be accessible to all in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices to ensure that there is no starvation and under-nourishment. Thus, there may be no shortage of food at all but it may not reach the hungry because it is too costly and beyond their means to buy.

Secondly, there is the direct link between food and health. This is determined by the availability of various items of food and awareness and education about nutrition and nourishment.

Thirdly, there is the wider and basic issue of who controls food production and to what end. All three of these issues must be addressed concurrently to ensure food security for the country.

The statistics for food production in Pakistan broadly present a rosy picture. Although the population has grown phenomenally -- from 32 million in 1947 to 150 million today -- food production has grown even faster. Thus, in 1950, cereal production was 139.3 kg per capita when in 2002 it rose to 149.3 kilograms. The number of calories per capita per day also went up from 2,078 to 2,306 in the same period.

Why should we then worry? These figures represent a broad average at the macro level. They hardly mean that each and every person is actually receiving the amount which the tables show. Had that been the case, 26 percent of under-five children would not have been underweight or 20 percent of the population under- nourished.

Had the growth in the agricultural sector been so equitably distributed, why would 33 percent of the people of Pakistan be living below the poverty line? Why would rural-urban migration have assumed the form of a flood from a trickle that it was several decades earlier?

There is also the change in the pattern of food production that has affected the people. Study the figures of under- nourished adults and children against the backdrop of the pattern of our food production and you have a clear picture of why the health status of our people is falling and the "lifestyle diseases" such as cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, etc., are on the rise. While the availability of other food has increased tremendously, the production of pulses -- a rich source of protein -- has been halved from 13.9 kg per capita in 1950 to 6.1 in 2002.

Significantly, edible oil (much of which uses saturated fat as its base) jumped up from 2.3 liters per capita in 1950 to 11.3 liters in 2002. A survey by a group of nutritional experts confirms the change in the dietary habits of the people. One can well say that food production has been determined by demand. But is it not strange that the more expensive items of diet, such as eggs, meat and sugar, are the ones which have registered an enormous rise in production.

As for control over land, the key element in agriculture, Pakistan is known to have a skewed system under which a handful of big landlords own vast acres of land -- seven percent of landlords own 40 percent of the cropped area. Why land reforms could never be implemented effectively and how the landowning feudal class has wielded political power to perpetuate its own grip over the government is an old story well known to everyone in Pakistan.

But the feudal land tenure system will appear to be benign when we look at the direction that our agricultural policy is now taking. In March 2001, the Musharraf government approved a corporatization of agriculture package and paved the way for the induction of multinationals in the food sector.

Under the new policy, foreign investors will be leased out state land without any ceiling on it and provided incentives such as loan facilities, tax concessions, exemption from labor laws, and so on.

The government proclaims that its objective is to enhance food production, attract foreign investment and boost exports. That sounds attractive, but at what cost? The corporatization of agriculture will work against the interests of the small farmers. Agriculture generates 44 percent of jobs in Pakistan.

Already, 36 million acres are said to have been reserved for this scheme. Given that the population in the rural areas is more impoverished and disadvantaged, the induction of big corporations could to lead to further concentration of resources and power in the hands of a few.

Will the small farmers ever be able to compete with the mammoth transnational corporations? The haris and peasants could not hold their own before the big feudals. The situation will be worse for them now.

In effect, corporate farmers with their wealth and power will drive out the small farmer. Not only will millions be deprived of their livelihood -- like the 800,000 of their compatriots who lost their jobs in the era of the Green Revolution -- the repercussions will be more profound and widespread this time.

Monopolies will be created in the agricultural sector which will join hands with the fertilizer companies and seed corporations to seize control of the food market in due course. By manipulating supply and demand, they will jack up the prices, and since they will be operating at the international level, their power will be invincible.

Undoubtedly this is an offshoot of globalization. But to barter away our food security for foreign investment and modern technology will amount to collective suicide. At this stage when the process has not actually begun there is still time for the government to stop and rethink its policy. No doubt there is a lot which can be done to boost agriculture and food production while concurrently improving the lot of the small farmer.

Though many may think otherwise, the time for land reforms is not over. Quoting the report of a UN conference in Maastricht in 2001, an activist of Shirkat Gah states that small farms are still found to be much more productive than big farms. There was a time when farmers' cooperatives were believed to be the answer to the constraints small farmers faced in increasing the yield of their farm.

Rather than going in for cooperatives, the government is opting for corporatization. That will not help.