Islamabad - Suggesting a new regulatory authority for food safety standards, Senior Advise Ministry of National Food Security and Research Malik Zahoor on Monday admitted the failure of the state to eliminate hunger and malnutrition.

The confession by the adviser stunned the audience — gathered to mark the World Food Day — resulting in a pin drop silence in a small but packed auditorium of National Agriculture Research Council (NARC).

The bold admission of the top official was met with surprise as earlier to his speech many affiliated organisations of the Ministry of Food and Security had made tall claims about their performance promising a prosperous future.

“Why we are still poor?” Zahoor raised the question. In his brief speech, he explained that the security and economy were interlinked. He said that due to the absence of any food safety standard regulatory body, low-quality seeds and lack of modern practices, the local crop was not up to the international standard and it was rejected.

“If we produce more, it is good, but if we cannot export, it is useless,” Zahoor said.

In a recently launched international report, Pakistan has been ranked as a country with "serious" hunger level with more than 22 percent of its population undernourished on the 2017 global hunger index.

Standing at 106 among 119 developing countries, the country is facing serious hunger problems. In 2016, Pakistan was placed 107 in the ranking of 118 developing countries.

On a 100-point scale (with 100 being the worst in hunger levels), Pakistan has a score of 33.4, improving only slightly from its score of 35.1 in 2008.

Other than Zahoor, every government official – including Minister for National Food Security and Research Sikander Hayat Bosan and Federal Secretary Fazal Abbas Maken – avoided discussing the international report or its alarming findings.

The participants of the event expressed different reasons for the poverty of farmers, who are feeding whole rural and urban population of the country.

Fayyaz Azim advocate, from Kissan Ittehad, pointed out three major flaws. He said the major factor killing the local farmer is the cartels and the failure of the government to eliminate them.

“There is sugar mill mafia, seed mill mafia, pesticides mafia and fertilizer mafia, who are selling farm inputs at an exorbitant price to the farmer. When the price of farm inputs increases, the farmer’s profit margin decreases,” he said.

Azim said that the absence of research was another reason, due to which, the farmer has to sow obsolete seeds, which are prone to diseases and low in yield.

He said that another hurdle adversely affecting the farmer was the trade policy. “The government buys cotton thread or maize oil in connivance with the oil mill mafia, during the season, which abruptly lowers the locally produced crop prices,” he said.

He said that organizations claim developing new seed varieties with fanfare but that seed was never provided to farmers.

“It is the job of the extension department of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture to provide new variety seeds to farmers at the provincial level, but no seed is ever provided to the farmers, we don’t know that the giant organizations like NARC actually developed something or it was just a media hype,” Azim said.

He said that the NARC must be asked that what hundreds of highly paid and qualified staffers have produced in the last five or 10 years and how farmers benefitted from that.

A senior official of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture cited the absence of accountability a major reason for the inefficiency of the affiliated departments.

“There is no accountability, there is a force, a highly paid staff but what they do, nobody bothers, and like any other government department, they just maintain a presence in the office without doing anything productive,” he said, suggesting a regular appraisal of all the staff including bureaucrats.

The Ministry of Food and Agriculture secretary is the defacto boss of every sister concerned but the transfer and postings are so rapid that by the time a non-technical bureaucrat starts understanding technical details, he is transferred,” official said.

He supported establishing the food regulatory authority and pointed out that during the last four years, major consignments to the US and European Union countries were rejected due to presence of worms in the crop, pesticide residue, and Aflatoxins- a family of toxins produced by certain fungi found in maize (corn), peanuts, cottonseed, and tree nuts.  He said by maintaining moisture level and minimizing pesticide spray, local products could be exported.

He said after signing the WTO, farmers need to be educated about the simple food safety international standards, which can be easily adopted by farmers and the local product can be made export-worthy.

MNSFR Secretary Fazal Abbas Maiken said that the idea of food regulatory authority was under discussion. He asked if establishing a regulatory body was the only solution to all problems, whereas two regulatory bodies, Plant Protection Department and are Animal Quarantine Department, were already working.

Bosan held previous governments responsible for the poverty of farmers.

“The last PPP government increased the prices of crops and taxes; our government has provided relief in fertilizer and pesticides,” the minister said.

He said that prior to 2013, there were 246 interceptions but since he took the office there was zero interference and no export crop was sent back due to being sub-standard.

Bosan said that Pakistan has five million tons of surplus wheat. When asked about the buyer, he said some African countries have shown their interest in this regard.

The minister said that the establishment of food regulatory authority was under discussion and soon it will be tabled in ECC for further deliberations.

In a separate event, a local NGO, Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek held a press conference and a protest outside the National Press Club.

The participants demanded a food and agriculture policy based on food sovereignty framework with equitable distribution of land, ensuring women farmers’ right to the land.