It’s high time for Pakistanis to recognize a distressing truth. We have committed a great injustice to our future generations. In the clearest of terms: we are systematically destroying their (already dwindling) chances of a good, decent, and enjoyable life.
Now that we’ve set the grim stage for this article, a couple of necessary health warnings. Yes, it is true that we as humankind need to reconsider our relationship with our future generations, and yes, we Pakistanis have done considerably less damage to the unseen future as compared to wealthier nations. But no, this does not mean that we as a nation and a society continue to stick to the short-term, fatalistic, and blame-shifting narratives that drive us.
This World Food Day, let us consider the future from the perspective of food. Every World Food Day, there are events across the country focusing on ‘awareness raising’, a repeated call to integration, agricultural reforms, improving access and affordability of food, reducing the influence of commodity mafias, and strengthening our agriculture sector. And yet, our problems continue. Let me now make some controversial statements about this situation:
- Focusing even more on agriculture as a way of addressing food insecurity is not the way out. We already do, and inequality, intergenerational health and economic outcomes, and entrenched power-based incentives for the richest continue (and worsen).
- Just because a focus on agriculture seems to have worked in pulling China out of poverty, does not mean the same approach will work here. A systematic and futures-based approach is one way of finding potential options that will work for Pakistan.
- We are missing empathy at the necessary scale for addressing injustice and inequality.
Unfortunately, common refrains that one hears in Pakistan extend from ‘I have enough to worry about in my everyday life to worry about anyone else’, and ‘I can’t do anything because the governments are so useless’, to ‘it is in our religion that the future is up to God and we can’t do anything to change fate’. All of these are miss-guided and wrong in different ways. We do have agency to affect things, and we have a responsibility to protect the great potential of oncoming generations instead of dumping harm as though there is nobody occupying our future. And no, I am not blind and unaware of the many barriers to change that exist in this country and others.
Let us now consider how we are using our food system to hack away at the roots of the future. For a country that depends on agriculture for a hefty chunk of our GDP (>21%), an alarming proportion of our population suffers from food and nutrition insecurity (60% of the population faces food insecurity, and we rank 88/107 on the Global Hunger Index of countries). Our rates of childhood malnutrition, maternal malnutrition, poverty, health and social safety systems, systematic discrimination against women, poor penetration and quality of education, governance systems designed to hobble the common man, have basically ensured a poor quality (and length) of life for current generations. For future generations, there is even less hope if current trends continue.
Who benefits from Pakistan’s food system then? Clearly not the small producers, the smaller enterprises that connect production and consumption, and those eking out a desperate and informal living at the fringes of ‘society’. A lot has already been said about the political interests in food production, food commodity mafias, and the baffling inability (or absence of political will and international support) to establish regional trade links. The fact that interested parties are distressingly intent on the continued production of water intensive crops in an intensely water variable country already suffering from climate change, steadily worsening our soil wealth with profligate application of agro-chemicals is the subject of an upcoming piece on the criminal practices of interested parties. Yes, criminal. Practices that focus on short-term benefits of a few at the cost of long-term benefits of millions is criminal.
In the last four weeks, at least fifteen people from different sectors have told me that I shouldn’t talk about ‘food’ in Pakistan if I’m hoping to convince people to head towards change. (The same people also said that anyone trying to seek out a career in Pakistan is mad and stupid). It seems that the ‘happening’ thing is agriculture and climate change. But why then do I insist on talking about food? Because we need to also talk about our livestock sector, aquaculture and fishing (has anyone seen the state of our rivers and streams lately?), forests (what’s left of them), and the massive network of people and enterprises that connect them with the country. We praise the agriculture sector for absorbing the near 45% of our labor force, but how much do we know about the hidden systems that connect our food production with everything else?
Consider the opportunity spaces that will become visible when we widen our focus beyond ‘an action plan for the agriculture sector’ or ‘roadmap to end stunting’. These are all intricately interconnected areas of action that must speak with those working on education, the health sector, alternative (hopefully improved) governance, opportunities for the youth, and improving employment. We have the glorious chance now to leapfrog the developmental mistakes of other countries and push our systems to improved resilience for our future generations in all aspects of their life. If we continue on our current roadmap, we will bequeath to them a legacy founded on irreparably degraded soils, crippled water and energy systems, and a food system that will collapse at the gentlest whiff of a shock. The fact that Pakistani food supply has mostly held up during COVID has not taken into account the consequences of maintaining this food supply. The dependence and encouragement of using chemical fertilizers and pesticides (for now, let’s skate past the concerns on whether or not these are applied sensibly, and what we’ll do when the phosphate crisis comes to a head), farmers forced to leave harvests to rot, and those who are trapped into a system of growing crops that really shouldn’t be produced in these climates, on these soils, or with these water systems.
Now let’s think about air pollution: an overlooked, smoky footprint of our food system. This mainly comes from emissions from agro-chemical application, livestock, farm machinery, vehicular emissions, and setting fire to cropland. This isn’t just a climate change issue. It is a human rights issue. We have a moral imperative to stop the unnecessary suffering and deaths resulting from incredibly preventable sources of pollution. Luckily, methods and practices that reduce air pollution from food systems have excellent systemic downstream effects.
I could go on. And as incredibly patient friends and colleagues have experienced, I DO go on. But let me pause here now and ask:
- What will it take to push for real and effective systemic and foresight-based thinking in Pakistani institutions?
- How can we drive for long-term thinking, inter-generational justice and equity, and escape the vicious cycles of distraction and consumerism?
- How can we take ownership of the everyday issues and concerns that will lay the foundations and nurture the seedlings of hope for our future?
I started this piece on a grim and doom-filled note. It is not difficult to do because all of us are worried and stressed about what appears to be happening to the country and the world. But, I know that the choices we make have an impact. They are having an impact now as we aggressively strip mine and drain the assets for our future children. It is time to consider our own narratives of time and the future. So, let us now focus on protecting and nurturing the vast potential of those who are growing up now and those yet to come. We can do so much. Can we not expand our horizons of time and space and care for those who have not yet met?