The Fight for Food Sovereignty in Pakistan and the role of Women

The Fight for Food Sovereignty in Pakistan and the role of Women

17 July 2021 – Dossier

Dr. Azra Talat Sayeed –

As a political activist with a focus on women’s and peasant rights, Dr. Azra Talat Sayeed has made an important contribution to building peasant movements in Pakistan and in the Asian region. She is the Executive Director of Roots for Equity, a Karachi-based organisation working with small and landless peasants, the current Chairperson of the Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN) and the International Women’s Alliance, and a Steering Council member for the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignity Asia.

The State of Food Security and Nutrition 2020 stated that almost 690 million people went hungry around the world in 2019, a ten million increase on 2018[1]. It came as no surprise that the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation predicted that a further 83-132 million could be pushed into chronic hunger due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest figures clearly show how our governments and an entire range of multilateral agencies are fighting a losing battle in their attempts to reach the sustainable development goal of ending all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030. But these devastating figures cannot be laid at the pandemic’s door alone, as trends since 2014 showed that hunger was on the rise. In Pakistan, despite being a prolific food producer, 36.9% of the country’s population remains food insecure and the statistics on malnutrition and consequent health concerns reflect the abject state of poverty of its citizens, particularly rural women and children.

How could such an advanced society have drifted so far from meeting one of its most critical and basic human needs? To understand this and the problem of hunger and malnutrition in a world that has surplus food production, an analysis of the political economy of hunger could yield some critical insights.

The WTO and its impact on small farmers

The creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 subjected the agriculture sector to a universal binding set of agreements for the first time. Key WTO agreements such as the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) and Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), which had been vigorously pushed by the US corporate lobby at the WTO, constituted a vicious attack on farmers, especially small and landless farmers, unleashing neoliberal deregulation, privatization and liberalization policies on poor subsistence farmers in the third world.

These agreements not only established a rigorous system governing international trade in food and agriculture but forced third-world governments to reduce the production and export support they provided to their farmers, while at the same time obliging them to open their markets to imports from other countries. They also pose a grave threat to the ownership of indigenous knowledge of farming communities and indigenous peoples.

How have these conditions impacted the food security of small and landless farmers in the Global South, especially the women? One needs to remind that the burden of ensuring household food security rests mainly on the women, particularly the rural women in the Global South.

Copyright Dr. Azra Talat Sayeed

In order to understand the impact of the AoA some basic differences between first and third-world agricultural producers must be taken into account. Referring to India as an example the international research group GRAIN states “India’s farmers have an average landholding of one hectare, while US farmers’ average landholding is 176 hectares. There are 2.1 million farms across the US, employing less than 2% of the population, with an average annual on-farm income per farm household of $18,637. Whereas more than half of India’s 1.3 billion that depend on agriculture do so for their livelihoods, with the average annual income of per farm household (from all sources) at less than US$1000.”[2]

The result is a tragic debt burden borne by millions of small farmers across Africa, Latin America and Asia. The majority of third world countries have what can be considered a semi-colonial and semi-feudal mode of production, which basically means that they are dependent on first world countries for agricultural inputs such as seed, fertilizers and pesticides. The domestic political landscape portrays control and ownership of land by very powerful feudal elites and rich farmers, while small and landless farmers lack any political clout. This is in contrast to the political power of the farm lobbies and mega-agrochemical corporations in the advanced capitalist world. Furthermore, the wealthy industrialized countries also provide very high levels of domestic support to their farmers.

The creation of the WTO triggered a clarion call to “Junk WTO” and to resist neoliberal policies in agriculture; farmers across the world developed the concept of Food Sovereignty, which comprises a set of principles ensuring the right of every human being to safe and nutritious food and the right of the small and landless farmers to produce food and earn a decent livelihood. Across Asia, many grassroots organizations started to mobilize rural communities and farmers to resist the draconian WTO agreements, with women farmers playing a key role.

WTO impacts on women dairy farmers in Pakistan

TRIPs and the AoA have had an immense impact on small and landless farmers in Pakistan: domestic seed saving systems have been wrested out of their hands through new legal mechanisms, production has been threatened by an onslaught of imported processed foods, livestock, and semen, while access to land has been affected by land-grabbing, for the large-scale production of crops that yield ethanol for example.

A particular case in point is the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) mechanism, a key WTO agreement that sets out the basic rules on food safety and animal and plant health standards. Based on the SPS, Pakistan, through its Punjab Food Authority (PFA), which is responsible for setting standards for food articles and regulating their manufacturing, storage, distribution, sale and imports, passed a set of Pure Food Laws that included a pasteurization policy for the province of Punjab, simultaneously implementing a ban on the sale of unprocessed milk. These homogenizing rules are the direct result of a globalized industrialized approach to food production that makes production processes complex and costly. Just before the onslaught of Covid-19, the PFA had given directives that in the city of Lahore, Punjab, sales of open milk would be banned by 2022.

At present, almost 95% of milk sales are from small and landless farmers, with Punjab accounting for almost 70% of the livestock and agriculture sector in Pakistan. As almost 90% of livestock care is in the hands of landless rural women, the SPS has critical implications for women farmers.

It is clear that transnational dairy corporations are eyeing the multiple products that milk yields such as butter, cheese, cream, yogurt, and buttermilk. Pakistan has one of the best cow and buffalo species that yield rich, creamy milk; there is little doubt that European countries, the USA, and Australia are pushing neoliberal policies in this sector to capture this lucrative market. Animal dung is also of interest as it yields biogas, an alternate source of energy to fossil fuels. Furthermore, seed corporations are promoting hybrid and genetically engineered maize seeds for fodder. Agribusinesses such as Nestlé and Friesland Campina have the capital to set up large processing facilities and benefit from economies of scale, while small producers are pushed out and deprived of their livelihoods.

The SPS agreement was therefore a death knell to poor women farmers, for whom livestock rearing is a vital economic asset. Milk and its byproducts (milk, butter, clarified butter, yogurt, and lassi) contribute to a household’s food security, especially in hard times, and are also a source of daily income. Animal dung is used for cooking and is a source of heat during winter.

The importance of the livestock and dairy sector for rural food security in Pakistan became particularly clear during the COVID-19 lockdown. According to rural women, for most landless families milk and butter, along with rotis made from wheat flour, were the main source of food for the entire household and if these items had not been available in those dark difficult months, hunger would have been much worse Lockdowns were imposed in Pakistan from March to May 2020, the prime wheat harvest months. Many women could not take part in the harvest due to the lockdown or lack of transport. Also, as large numbers of men had come back from the cities as there were no longer any jobs there, there was less work available for the women. Hence, women’s earnings from the wheat harvest were considerably lower than usual.

Organizing and resistance of women dairy producers in Pakistan

The Farmers’ Alliance Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek (PKMT) was formed in 2008. In a very patriarchal society, where no more than 2 % of women own land, PKMT had a very difficult time organizing women, but a determined ten-year thrust of ensuring women farmers’ membership has led to rich gains. This could be especially gauged during the pandemic as women stood up to defend their right to produce and consume safe food using agroecological methods and promote seed sovereignty.

PKMT quickly responded to the milk grab initiated by the PFA in 2019 and mobilized its women members to resist the corporate capture of the dairy sector. This was extremely timely as during the COVID-19 public eating-places were closed and as a result, milk sales were severely impacted and women lost considerable income. Big corporations started buying milk as they could save it in big chillers and women found that they had to sell milk to them at nearly half of the pre-pandemic market price. Through PKMT women came to understand the power of these corporations as well as the acute need of having control over milk as a food source. In spite of the pandemic, the women continued to organize and mobilize. On March 8, 2020, there was a nationwide mobilization demanding women’s farmers’ rights; women categorically challenged corporations for promoting agrochemical farming as well as the ongoing propaganda against raw or fresh milk and allegations that it has a harmful impact on human health. Even with the deepening impact of the pandemic, women celebrated Rural Women’s Day on October 15 with a strong attack on the dairy corporations as by now they had suffered the impact of COVID-19 lockdown on milk sales. At the PKMT General Assembly women also spoke out vehemently against the corporate milk grab.

Many PKMT women members have joined men to start farms run on agroecological principles. Throughout 2020, they remained committed to traditional wheat growing, even though there was constant pressure from government agencies to revert to agrochemical farming, which the authorities maintained would yield much higher production. Some of these farms are in riverine areas, where there is a constant threat of flooding and loss of harvests. But even in the face of such multiple crises, women have stood strong. They are totally self-sufficient in livestock, animal dung, and compost, as well as seeds through seed saving. The reward, though based on backbreaking labor, is self-sufficiency in ample, healthy, and nourishing food.

One woman, who had been keeping livestock as well as running an agroecological farm, had to sell her buffalo to meet hospital bills but afterward bought a calf. Though she did not have the money to buy a buffalo, she was willing to buy a calf in order to keep her farm going. Of course, it is certainly not all sunshine: one woman, who wanted to access her land, was denied it by her brothers. Through her constant negotiations with her brothers, she obtained just enough land to establish a seed bank; this is something that PKMT encourages its members to do to enable them to break away from dependence on corporate seeds. Another young widow was denied access to land by her family but continues to rear livestock and is a strong voice within PKMT advocating against patriarchy and the corporate capture of agriculture.

So it is clear that the fight for food sovereignty must be conducted on several fronts, including standing fast against corporate capture, feudalism, and patriarchy.


More information:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), The State of Food Security and Nutrition around the World in 2020, July 2020. http://www.fao.org/3/ca9692en/online/ca9692en.html#chapter-1_1

Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek, https://pkmt.noblogs.org/

[1] http://www.fao.org/3/ca9692en/online/ca9692en.html

The Fight for Food Sovereignty in Pakistan and the role of Women