The Covid19 Pandemic and Food (In) Security in Pakistan

Pakistan continues to face numerous natural and manmade disasters, including catastrophic floods, earthquakes, droughts, war, and conflicts. The catastrophic wars in 1948, 1965 and 1999, the drought in 2013-15 to floods of 2010 affected almost 20 million people. Likewise, from 2007 onwards, the war on terrorism killed 52,000 civilians and erupted large-scale migration of around 1 million people from the conflicted areas of Pakistan[i]. Similarly, as the numbers of Covid19 cases continue to rise, reaching its peak by the end of March-April 202[ii], it is feared that the combined effects of the pandemic, subsequent lockdowns, followed by an infestation of the locust and other natural hazards (flooding) plummeted pre-existing vulnerabilities particularly the food security crises.

In our working research paper, we showed that the Corona pandemic, combined with other factors such floods, locust attack and delayed decision making, caused a nation-wide food insecurity crises, which can be averted, if proper policy interventions were taken. This blog summarized the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on agriculture sector, food security and human as follow:

  • An acute shortage of wheat which also turned into a major political issue. In addition to pandemic, the Locust outbreak in Pakistan (towards last part of 2019 and start of 2020) turned significant agricultural losses in the main crop production areas in Baluchistan, Punjab and Sindh provinces. According to the initial assessment damage to over 115 thousand hectares of crops including wheat, oil seed crops, cotton, gram, fruits and vegetables, besides grazing field losses[iii]. Other food items, such as chicken, milk, vegetables, pulses, also became expensive or vanished from the market, adding to the miseries of the majority. Shortages in these essential commodities had cause their prices to soar at the end of last year and the trend continued into the new year, which began with a bang in more ways than one. January inflation rate rose to 14.6 percent, from 12.6 percent during the previous month, reaching the highest level in 12 years of Pakistan.
  • This consistent price hike and shortages of essential food items propelled the crisis, declaring it as a “national food security crisis”—which can have a far-reaching impact on the population, especially those who are already marginalized.” In addition, it is also predicted that the farmers will be forced to liquidate their assets for survival[iv]. Similarly, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), placed Pakistan in a list of 45 countries requiring external assistance due to food insecurity. It mentioned pockets of population in immediate need including 1.4 million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees and 1.8 million Pakistanis in the administratively merged areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa being in “crisis” and “emergency” phase in terms of food insecurity[v].
  • Likewise the average number of daily new cases has been rising sharply (over 12 percent) since the beginning of 2021. On April 30, the Government announced to impose a “complete lockdown” in 12 major cities to curb the spike in cases from May 8th. The effects of urgent and essential COVID-19 containment measures are having repercussions on the country’s already fragile employment situation and livelihood situation—as “most vulnerable groups susceptible to COVID-19 shocks include daily wage laborers (22 percent of all wage earners), internally or temporarily displaced persons, refugees, returnees, low income urban households, market-dependent rural households i.e. daily wages labors, elderly people, those already suffering from medical conditions, children and female-headed poor households.” [vi]. The wheat production in Pakistan also will suffer harshly, since 70 percent of the wheat harvest depends on traditional farm laborers, current containment measures in May 2021, will significantly hindered their ability to move and work during harvest, resulting in production losses. In addition, food supply chains—including provision of the agricultural and livestock inputs (seeds, vaccination, and fertilizers), agricultural machinery, seed/food storage, and transport facilities, followed by inadequate extension services will further disrupt the production and re-distributional channels.
  • The Livestock sector also witness huge loss due to COVID-19 pandemic. The small breeders and farmers have been affected largely, as livestock markets were closed until mid-April and the buying/selling of livestock was at a standstill. Additionally, farmers’ ability to access animal health services was hampered due to temporary closures of government and private sector animal husbandry services. Most significantly, the effects of COVID-19-related inter-provincial and inter-city transport restrictions is adversely impacting livestock products and the processing industry, such as milk and meat products, which could have detrimental repercussions on small businesses engaged in milk and meat supply chains. Last but not least, the ability of markets to supply a diverse range of staples, fruit and vegetables will also vary, creating price hikes in urban areas, which will further food crises and could reduce access to food for the most vulnerable households in Pakistan.
  • Additionally, the economic impact of pandemic will significantly affect the purchasing power of the most vulnerable population. Since a quarter of the population of Pakistan lives below the national poverty line and around 2/5 are multidimensional poor. Food insecurity is very high, with 20–30 percent of the population (40 to 62 million people) experiencing some form of food insecurity. An estimated 36.43 million people are persistently and chronically vulnerable to food insecurity and also highly exposed to natural hazards and shocks, including the ongoing pandemic. An additional 2.45 million people could become food insecure as a result of any medium-scale shock[vii] and rise in food price.  In year 2020, on the average, the food inflation, limited to seven most sensitive items measured on year-on-year basis was 17.57 percent in urban areas, and 21.30 percent the in rural areas[viii]. This rapid price increase of wheat grain and flour as well as other important food items, such as chicken, meat, milk, onions, and fruits could continue as long as governmental containment measures are in place. As a result, the purchasing power of the most vulnerable is likely to be significantly affected over the remainder of the year 2021-22, with potential repercussions on food security and nutrition situation of Pakistan. The Newly Merged Districts (NMDs) of Pakistan, which were formerly part of the Federally Administered Tribal Area, are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. According to the World Food Program (WFP), a majority of the households in the NMDs (65 percent) are dependent on unsustainable livelihood strategies (daily wages), while the remaining (35 percent) depend on somewhat sustainable sources[ix].
  • Similarly, the steep increase in power and gas prices every few months, punishing middle-income households that are already struggling to cope with the pandemic’s impact on their lives and livelihoods are not only increasing prices of food—consequently eroding the political capital and masses rebel to current government, as evidenced in the recent by-elections in different cities of Pakistan, where the ruling party was defeated badly[x].
  • Through the Federal and provincial Governments has adopted measures to safeguard financial stability, expanded refinancing schemes i.e. “package of 7.2 US$ billion as part of its immediate response to COVID-19. Fiscal measures by provincial governments include expanding the Ehsaas emergency program’s outreach from 5.2 million to 12 million households, providing a cash grant to 3 million daily wage laborers in the formal sector and providing food assistance to poor families at subsidized rates from utility stores. The Benazir Income Support Program is supporting 3 million households and the Government has enhanced their monthly stipend from PKR 2 000 (around 13 US$) to PKR 3 000 (around 20US$)”[xi]. Likewise, the governmental multi-sectorial relief packages including 600 million US$ for agriculture—supporting nearly half of the population of Pakistan engage in agriculture sector. Additionally, 1.69 billion US$ will be used to procure 8.2 million tons of wheat during the current season. The Punjab government has offered USD 905, 57640 worth of interest-free loans to farmers, crop insurance for 250 000 farmers and 1.2 million sacks of seeds for the next wheat crop.[xii]  However, as we witnessed in the past, majority of these stimulus or relief packages are considered to benefiting large farmers and female producers are largely ignored[xiii]. Likewise to curtail artificial price inflation by food hoarders, the government has promulgated COVID-19 (Prevention of Hoarding) Ordinance, 2020, to fine and jail traders who hoard essential items and create artificial shortage of goods.[xiv]

Key Recommendations

  1. In short term strategy, the government must re-direct budgets available within the provincial departments for provision of food packages comprising of essential items to vulnerable groups; and identify population pockets across the country suffering severe shortage of food; and build a strong price monitoring mechanism to curb the price hike and food hoarding. Similarly, the government, civil society and the private sector should join hands to ensure sustained supply of food packages in affected areas—re-directing corporate social responsibility budgets (CSR) in relief operations. These actors can also work on imparting awareness drives and media or on-ground campaigns on health and safety measures to reduce the risk of virus among rural communities—ensure SOPs, and protect the vulnerable farmers, markets, and their families from viral infections.
  2. In long run, the government should have rapid and efficient policy response and effective coordination between federal and provincial government. It must work on diversifying agricultural sector, and subsidize food items.  Additionally, to tackle the viral spread, federal and provincial department must strengthen the health system and establish a food production and supply surveillance mechanism. This system will monitor and evaluate the food production, distribution, and supply chains, to curtail food insecurity or nutritional situation of the country. Similarly, in collaboration with donors and UN organizations (i.e. WFP, UNDP, FAO), government can re-design existing farmer training and technology transfer initiatives, addressing the skill gap among vulnerable farmers—improving farming practices, storage, processing, and reduce post-harvest losses. It can also increase their marketing capacities, access to internet sources (selling their crops/products) and transportation, and storages, strengthening the market linkages between producer, suppliers and other market forces.

The Government along with bilateral organizations and monetary institutions (MFIs) can reevaluate existing stimulus packages (i.e. seed grants or interest free loans or insurance schemes) and direct them towards the small farmers and tenants, including female in the rural fraternity. The Crop/Livestock Insurance schemes can help vulnerable and small farmers/breeders to avoid negative spillover of the droughts. Floods, pandemic or other disasters.  In order to reduce rural poverty, Government can provide more and decent jobs in the rural economy, and extend the social protection to all, facilitating and promoting the formalization of the informal economy and labor rights amidst covid19 crises.

The federal government should lead a dialogue across the federating units to lift the ban on inter-provincial movement of cereal crops (i.e. wheat, Rice) and other essential food items. These restrictions only increase the prices and create an incentive to smuggle the goods out of the country. The federal government should also abolish the need for cabinet approval before import and export of food items and should allow open trade throughout the year. Likewise, both federal and provincial governments should withdraw from public procurement of wheat, sugar cane and other staple crops, but instead invest in strategic reserves of wheat and other crops to act as a buffer in the event of major supply disruption such as during pandemic or natural disaster.

The government must invest in advance technologies, i.e. Artificial Intelligence, remote sensing technology and satellite imaging for crop and disease monitoring. The government can initiate a public-private partnership—offering incentives and growth opportunities in the supply chain and value addition in agricultural and other food related sector. The private sector can also invest in farming, introducing and expanding modern agricultural practices, increasing agriculture growth and positively contribute toward GDP growth.

End Notes:

Full version of working paper is available at https://ms-researchhub.com/home/Research/msr-working-papers.html


[i] Abbasi, Nadia Mushtaq. Impact of Terrorism on Pakistan.  Strategic Studies 33, no. 2 (2013): 33-68.

[ii] National Command and Operation Center, Ministry of Health, Pakistan and World Health Organization’s dash board April 3, 2021

[iii] Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, Economic Survey of Pakistan 2020. Ministry of Finance, Government of Pakistan, Islamabad p 31, ch 20. (2019-20)

[iv] UNDP Pakistan. Covid-19 – Pakistan Socioeconomic Impact Assessment & Response Plan. p 33. May 2020

[v] Food and Agricultural Organization FAO. Country Situational Analysis—Pakistan 2020

[vi] Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).Humanitarian response Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), p 11. December 2020, Islamabad

[vii] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 2020. Global Humanitarian Response Plan for Pakistan COVID-19 Pandemic. p 8. New York and Geneva.

[viii] Democracy Reporting International—Pakistan. Food Security in Pakistan During the Pandemic Year. DRI Policy Brief December 2020. p 8. 2020

[ix] World Food Program (WFP). Comprehensive Food Security and Livelihood Assessment 2020. Islamabad, Pakistan. 

[x] Pakistan’s People Party Media Cell. PTI Pathetic Performance. The News International (published May 3rd, 2021) 

[xi] Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).Humanitarian response Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), p 11. December 2020, Islamabad

[xii] Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). National agri-food systems and COVID-19 in Pakistan Effects, policy responses, and long-term implications April 2021.

[xiii] Drucza, Kristie, and Valentina Peveri. “Literature on gendered agriculture in Pakistan: Neglect of women’s contributions.” In Women’s Studies International Forum, pp. 185, 2018

[xiv] Zubair Q. COVID-19: 3-year jail term for hoarders of consumer items in Pakistan, The Gulf News published on 18th April 2021.

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