Climate change and botched policies push Pakistan toward food insecurity

A combination of government failures and an ever-more unpredictable climate has seen food prices surge while crop yields are affected
<p>A farmer harvests their wheat crop in the Tawi River valley. Low crop yields and damage from extreme weather is threatening Pakistan’s food security. (Image: Channi Anand / Alamy)</p>

A farmer harvests their wheat crop in the Tawi River valley. Low crop yields and damage from extreme weather is threatening Pakistan’s food security. (Image: Channi Anand / Alamy)

Farmers in Pakistan have been protesting over the last few months after the government slashed its procurement quota for wheat. Sindh province, with its early crop yields, has been central to the protests, but two months after the completion of this year’s wheat harvest there, the stand-off continues.

“The government had fixed the wheat purchasing rate and was supposed to issue wheat bags directly to farmers, but some food department officials are allegedly selling these bags to small-scale traders (pedhi) in exchange for kickbacks. As a result, pedhi-walas are purchasing wheat from growers at lower rates than the government’s prescribed rate of PKR 100,000 [USD 360] per 100 kilogrammes,” Akram Khaskheli, President of the Sindh-based Hari Welfare Association told Dialogue Earth. Wheat bags are issued to pack and sell wheat to the government procurement centres.

Khaskheli further stated that if the mismanagement of the situation by the government continued, it would lead to the loss of precious crops, further deteriorating food insecurity despite the availability of wheat.

The large procurement of wheat by the government – usually about 20% of production, or 5.6 million tonnes – at a minimum support price assures a buyer for some of the produce and helps set a market rate. But the current issue also involves climate change, and how it is pushing Pakistan’s agricultural sector into crisis.

Two years of agricultural crisis after 2022 floods

The current crisis is linked to the massive floods that hit Pakistan in July-September 2022 and inundated a third of the country’s districts. A host of climatic factors – including a warming ocean – coincided to create the extreme rainfall event, which moderately or severely affected 15% of Pakistan’s cropland.

In areas like Johi in the Dadu district in the Sindh province, the impact lasted many seasons. The huge amount of water from the floods stagnated for six months after the initial disaster. A barrage had also collapsed, and could not be made functional for two years.

Forty-four-year-old Talib Gadehi and his brothers, who together own 350 acres (141 hectares) of agricultural land in the area, told Dialogue Earth that most of them struggled to cultivate their land for four consecutive seasons over two years.

The barrage collapse affected an estimated 100,000 acres (40,469 hectares), Gadehi said, and cultivable land has become barren. “This situation has resulted in mass migration [out of the area],” he added.

Rising inflation sparked imports

Across Pakistan, such impacts contributed to the country falling from the 99th spot on the Global Hunger Index in 2022 to the 102nd in 2023. According to a January 2024 analysis by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, poverty rates increased from 34% in 2022 to 39% in 2023, largely due to elevated food prices. This further eroded the purchasing power of vulnerable households. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, more than 10 million people were “experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity… between April to October 2023”.

Wheat accounts for 72% of the country’s staple food, and to deal with issues of food security and inflation, the caretaker government installed ahead of the 2024 national elections made the decision to import wheat in late 2023. Except, by this time the agricultural sector had recovered, and farmers expected a higher-than-normal yield. But because the government had already imported wheat, it now wants to buy less from farmers, leading to protests.

Group of women wearing headscarves, walking on the street and holding signs for a rally
A January 2023 protest in Lahore, Pakistan against an increase in the price of wheat flour. High food prices were largely responsible for pushing 12.5 million more Pakistanis below the poverty line in 2023 (Image: K.M. Chaudary / Alamy)

Muhammad Arif Goheer, who heads the Agriculture, Forestry and Land Use section at Global Climate-Change Impact Studies Centre (GCISC) in Islamabad, explained the decision to import wheat to Dialogue Earth in March, before the protests, as an issue of affordability. While grain may be available in the country, if the price is too high, it remains inaccessible to the poor. The import of grain did cause the price of wheat to plummet, “to between Rs 3,000 and Rs 3,100 per 40 kilogrammes — significantly below the Rs 3,900 per 40kg minimum support price (MSP) set for wheat for the 2024-2025 season”, according to the Dawn, but this has led to protests by farmers who were hoping for a decent season after two years of hardship.

Goheer said, “The ultimate solution in tackling food inflation and security lies in adopting precision agriculture and the use of high-yielding seeds.”

But Khaskheli, of the Hari Welfare Association, pointed out that farmers receive little or no assistance in this. “From start to finish, growers are helpless,” he said. “Growers face obstacles in accessing quality seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, and are forced to sell their crops at lower rates. This impacts crop yields and food security.”

Food security threatened by mismanagement, climate change

Both the protests, and Pakistan’s abysmal rankings on the Global Hunger Index, highlight how important agricultural policies are to Pakistan’s food security and social stability. On basic metrics, the country has done well. In 1947-48, wheat was sown on 3,953 hectares, producing 3,354 tonnes at a yield of 0.848 tonnes per hectare. By 2022-23 wheat was sown on 9,043 hectares in Pakistan, producing 27,634 tons with an average yield of 3.056 tonnes per hectare.

But although Pakistan is now the 7th largest producer of wheat in the world, it is only 38th in terms of average wheat yield according to Index Mundi, with an average yield of 3 metric tons per hectare. New Zealand currently holds the highest world average wheat yield at 10 metric tons per hectare.

A growing challenge in raising productivity is climate change, according to Bashir Ahmad, the Director of the Climate, Energy and Water Resources Institute (CEWRI) under the Federal Ministry of National Food Security & Research. He explains that Pakistan’s agriculture sector heavily relies on irrigation, with 60-70% of it coming from snowmelt and glacier melt. However, global warming and climate change have impacted this contribution in terms of both quantity and timing.

a farmer picking apples with fallen trees in the background
In September 2022, a farmer collects rotting apples in a flood-damaged orchard near Quetta, Pakistan. From heatwaves and floods to changing rainfall and unpredictable glacial melt, climate change is making life difficult for farmers in the South Asian country (Image: Arshad Butt / Alamy)

Additionally changing rainfall patterns have affected water availability and storage, with intense and short-duration rainfall leading to soil erosion, Ahmad told Dialogue Earth. This has severely impacted rain-fed agriculture in the Potohar region and northern parts of the country.

Studies show that changing rainfall patterns have resulted in a 6-15% impact on different crops, particularly rain-fed crops like wheat, which has experienced up to a 15% reduction. This reduction does not account for the impact of heatwaves and floods,” Ahmad added.

In cold regions like Gilgit Baltistan, Ahmad said, fruits like oranges are maturing early due to inadequate chilling hours. In addition, reduced irrigation water supply has led to increased dependence on groundwater in Punjab, causing decreasing groundwater levels.

Solutions available, but government support critical

Agricultural scientist Zafar Ali Khokhar, director of agronomy at Wheat Research Institute Sakrand, Sindh, suggests local seed varieties could double current production potential. However, demand-supply issues persist in quality seed manufacturing.

“Our institute has developed varieties yielding 80 maunds of wheat per acre [7.43 tons per hectare], proven by consistent use. Ensuring necessary seed supply rests with responsible manufacturers. Currently, only 30% of total seed demand comprises high-yield wheat seeds, supplied by government or private companies,” Khokhar told Dialogue Earth.

Aamer Hayat Bhandara, who served as a member of the prime minister’s committee on agriculture yield improvement in 2023, emphasised that the time to act was now. “If past governments could not prioritise giving due attention to the provision of modern techniques, technology, and accessibility to the farmer, despite its utmost importance in the agriculture sector, it is high time to focus on it now.”