Tempest in a teapot – 27 Jun 2022

Pakistan imported $60 million worth of more tea in the current fiscal year than in the previous one

The recent suggestion from the Planning Minister that we should reduce our tea consumption to decrease our import bill and mounting trade deficit has not received an enthusiastic response from people, as reflected by the electronic and social media outpourings. Tea is now very much a part of our culture and social milieu. According to American Indologist Philip Lutgendorf, tea is the essential lubricant of nearly all social occasions in this region — the quotidian fuel of the working class. The innocuous advice of the minister has in fact pointed to a more serious dimension of the problem — our increasing reliance on food imports. From being a food exporting country, we are now forced to import almost all major food items.

According to the federal budget document, Pakistan imported $60 million worth of more tea in the current fiscal year than in the previous one — a trend witnessed for the past few years. Apart from tea, our imports of essential food items have been steadily rising. According to the Bureau of Statistics, for the fiscal year 2020–21 our total food imports saw a whopping 54% increase compared to the preceding year, with a surge seen in the imports of wheat, sugar, palm oil and dry fruits. The import of pulses increased by 15% and tea by 9%. Food imports constituted 15% of the total share of our imports, an increase of three percentage points from the preceding year 2019-20. Our planners need to acknowledge that our domestic food production is not expanding, and consequently our import bill for consumable food staples will keep mounting to meet the demands of our rapidly growing population. A classic case of imbalance between supply and demand. Every year, on an average, we add four million people, which is equivalent to the entire population of New Zealand. By 2050 we will be a staggering 338 million.

Our ability to increase domestic agricultural production is being severely compromised by the diminishing availability of irrigation water and arable land. According to Food and Agriculture Organization, Pakistan’s water crisis — already worsening through its rapidly increasing population and urban growth — is being further exacerbated by climate change. Because of high demand and slow replenishment, the water table is rapidly receding, thus increasing water stress levels. Other factors contributing to the shrinkage of cultivable lands are burgeoning housing schemes, roads and other infrastructure which have grown exponentially to meet the demands of a rapidly increasing population. Nearly 37% of our population is facing food insecurity and 18% of them are severely food insecure. According to the 2021 Global Hunger Index, Pakistan ranked 92nd out of 116 countries. With an expanding population base, shrinking agricultural land and widening food insecurity, it hardly seems possible that Pakistan can achieve the sustainable development goal of eliminating hunger by 2030.

To reduce imports and our reliance on imported food staples we should plan for stabilisation of our population growth rate, with the aim of creating a balance between available resources and population size. Our focus should be on helping couples better plan their families, facilitating them in reducing their unmet need for family planning and thus avoiding unwanted pregnancies. The demand for smaller families has now crystallised; people want affordable and easily accessible family planning services. They demand a better education, better health, adequate food, shelter, and better employment prospects for their children as their basic rights. The future of Pakistan depends upon what steps we take now. Planning today will help build a better and more prosperous future for the generations to come.

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