In Pakistan, a dire wheat crisis is unfolding, causing distress among ordinary citizens and triggering tragic incidents. The country is facing a severe shortage of wheat, leading to unprecedented market prices. The floods of 2022 impacted approximately 2.2 million hectares of agricultural land, resulting in a 30% decrease in domestic wheat production compared to previous years, amounting to approximately 1.5 million tons of wheat lost. Consequently, Pakistan has transitioned from being a wheat exporter to an importer.
“As a shopkeeper, when we go to buy wheat from the mandi, we consistently face shortages. Every time we visit, the prices of wheat have increased, but there is no availability of wheat stock. The sellers often inform us that the wheat will be delivered two days later and ask for payment in advance. However, the actual delivery of wheat is postponed to a later date,” says Mohammad Shoaib, a local shopkeeper.
Inadequate Farmer Prices Worsen The Crisis
Pakistan’s shift from a wheat-exporting country to a net importer was predicted by experts due to poor government planning and insufficient incentives for farmers. The lack of adequate prices for farmers and high input costs further exacerbated the situation.
“The floods caused significant damage to agricultural land in Sindh, resulting in the loss of winter crops such as cotton and rice. The provincial government’s inaction in draining the water worsened the situation, and now it will take a decade to develop and deploy a drainage system in those areas,” explains economist Amir Sial.
The shortage of wheat has led to chaotic scenes and stampedes at government-established low-cost distribution points, resulting in tragic incidents. At least 11 people have lost their lives during flour distribution in various districts. The desperation for this essential commodity has reached alarming levels, with fights and stampedes breaking out over a mere 5 kg sack of flour.
“The transportation cost of wheat in Pindi, KPK, and Balochistan is high, and the flawed policies of the government, formulated by bureaucrats, have exacerbated the situation. If free intercity trade is established, the price of wheat will decrease, and flour will become more affordable. Additionally, the international market rate for wheat is low, and if permitted, we can import wheat to provide cheap flour to the people,” says Asim Raza Ahmad, Chairman of the Flour Mills Association Pakistan.
The flour mill strikes have further aggravated the crisis, disrupting the production and supply chain due to inadequate wheat supply from the government. As a result, around 700 flour mills across the country are facing reduced production capacity, driving up prices and exacerbating the scarcity.
“Pakistan needs to develop a uniform policy to address the wheat crisis effectively. The different prices in each province create numerous problems, and a uniform policy would ensure consistent prices throughout the country,” emphasizes economist Amir Sial.
The soaring prices and scarcity of wheat have made flour unaffordable for many low-income households, exacerbating food insecurity. Major cities like Lahore have witnessed exorbitant flour prices, with a 20 kg bag costing approximately $16 in the open market. Similarly, the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has experienced a significant surge in wheat prices, burdening the local population.
“Most of the wheat is smuggled from Pakistan at higher rates, causing a shortage in the local market. The involvement of mafias that stock wheat and create shortages worsens the problem,” reveals Mohammad Shoaib, a local shopkeeper.
Approximately 30% of Pakistan’s wheat production is estimated to be smuggled to Afghanistan, aggravating the domestic shortage. This illegal trade reduces supply and availability, further driving up prices and affecting the equilibrium of the domestic market.
The Government Urged to Intervene
Pakistan’s increasing population is exacerbating the crisis, as we are producing only 20 million tons of wheat, which falls short of the country’s requirement of 30 million tons. The government will need to import the shortfall of 2 million tons of wheat. However, the root of the problem lies in poor and primitive farming methods, as well as the lack of government intervention in post-harvest processes to improve crop productivity.
“The government should specify a quota through procurement for the public, allowing farmers or stockists to sell directly in the open market. This would provide better prices and immediate cash payment, which is more beneficial for them. Timely rates should be announced to encourage increased production and enable farmers to secure good rates in the market,” suggests Chaudhry Mukhtar, a farmer representative.
To address the wheat crisis, the Pakistani government has allocated approximately $500 million for wheat imports. Ships carrying a large consignment of wheat have already arrived from Russia, and additional imports are expected through Gwadar port. The scale of the challenge necessitates immediate action to bridge the supply gap.
However, the protests and demonstrations taking place across various cities in Pakistan reflect the frustrations of citizens grappling with the high cost of flour and the government’s perceived inadequate response. The United Nations has warned about the long-term consequences of the crisis, particularly for vulnerable populations such as children and women, in terms of their nutritional status and overall well-being.
“The Pakistani population is on the rise, and our farming methods need improvement. The government must intervene to improve crop productivity and bring our agricultural practices up to international standards. By doing so, we can significantly increase our wheat production and mitigate the crisis,” emphasizes economist Amir Sial.
The wheat crisis in Pakistan has had a significant impact on the country’s food security and socioeconomic landscape. Urgent measures are required to ensure access to affordable and nutritious food for all.