Wheat is a staple food in Pakistan's economy, public health, culture, and food security and is the main staple.
As a child who was the definition of a fussy eater and not an avid fan of roti, I was given tidbits of information on said roti by my mother as she coaxed me to eat some. As much as the convincing annoyed me, I still enjoyed the random pieces of information she fed me in the midst of it all. For example, wheat is Pakistan's staple food, whole wheat provides tons of energy for growing kids without making them obese, unlike french fries, and many more.
With time I begrudgingly accepted that roti would be an essential most days and awareness settled in of how we did not one day randomly choose wheat as our staple; instead it is a decision made by rich history spanning centuries, a fertile land that supports the crop, and a diet fit for our South Asian metabolism.
Dietary Staples Around the World:
Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent largely have wheat and wheat products as the established staples. A dietary staple is defined as a food that makes up the dominant part of a population’s diet. A country’s staple is consumed by the masses on a daily basis and contributes majorly to an individual's energy and nutritional requirements.
Dietary staples vary from place to place, but typically include inexpensive plant-based foods such as cereal grains and tubers. Traditionally, food staples were dependent on what plants were native to a region but with advancements in agriculture, food storage, and transportation, food staples and their availability is gradually changing. For example, in the South Pacific islands, traditional food staples such as taro have seen a decline in consumption since 1970. Similarly, foods that were previously specific to one region, like quinoa originally grown in the Andes Mountains of South America, is now consumed widely around the world and is an important part of the recent vogue of a vegan diet.
Another common staple is rice which is consumed by more than 3.5 billion people in Asia, Latin America, and parts of Africa. Corn is a staple crop in Central America, with the United States being the world’s largest corn grower. Roots and tubers such as yams, cassava, and taro are common food staples in tropical regions. Wheat is a staple food in temperate regions with fertile soils and is grown extensively in the United States, Canada, Australia, and many countries throughout Europe, including France, Germany, and Italy. In Asia, wheat is a staple in China, India, and Pakistan, while in Africa, it is a dietary staple in Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria.
Wheat Cultivation & Consumption in Pakistan:
Wheat is a highly versatile and nutritious crop that is widely used in various food products, hence a popular choice for many cultures and cuisines. The grain’s popularity can be attributed to its relatively affordability, versatility, and nutritional value. In Pakistan, wheat is a staple food due to its favorable climate for cultivation, adaptability, and nutritional value. The crop is grown on a large scale throughout the country, with Punjab province being the largest wheat producing province in Pakistan.
According to the U.S Department of Agriculture, Pakistan has had a wheat production average of almost 25 million metric tons over the past five years. The government of Pakistan provides various incentives to farmers to promote wheat cultivation, including subsidies on seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. Wheat cultivation is a vital source of income for millions of farmers in Pakistan, contributing around 10.3% to the country's agrarian economy and accounting for approximately 2.2% of the nation’s GDP.
Pakistan has an average wheat consumption rate of 125 kilograms per head per year, which is among the highest in the world. Approximately 60-70% of the total calories consumed by the population come from wheat and wheat-based products. With the rise of income, urbanization, and the globalization of cuisine, there has been a gradual trend towards a more diverse diet that includes foods such as fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products. Despite this shift, it's important to note that wheat will continue to be a primary source of sustenance and necessary calories, particularly for the poorer segments of the population.
History of Wheat in the Indian Subcontinent:
The ancient Harappan Civilization of the Indus Valley was the first archeological evidence discovered of the inhabitation of the Indian Subcontinent, and perhaps the first sign of the presence and cultivation of wheat in the region. The domestication and culturing of wheat during 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE displayed marked sophistication with efforts to manage the area’s unique topography through technical advancements, the use of irrigation systems and tools such as plows and sickles for the harvesting and threshing of grains, as well as the gradual domestication of emmer and einkorn wheat.
After the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization, the baton for the cultivation of wheat was handed over to the various other civilizations that consequently emerged, including the Persians, Greeks, and Mughals. Where the Persians introduced new irrigation systems and improved farming techniques, the Greeks introduced techniques such as crop rotation. The Mughals then influenced the grain by encouraging the construction of canals and irrigation systems, making cultivation possible in areas that were previously arid or semi-arid.
The British, during their colonial rule, catalyzed wheat production to increase exponentially. This was because wheat, as a cash crop, was very dear to them, hence they introduced new varieties of wheat that were better suited to the region's climate and soil conditions. Moreover, the introduction of the steam engine and other modern farming tools opened up new avenues for wheat cultivation at a large scale, perhaps the first instances of mechanization and commercialization of crops in the subcontinent.
After independence in 1947, the Pakistani government continued to prioritize wheat production as a means of ensuring food security for the growing population. To achieve this goal, in the 1960s and 1970s, the government implemented policies and programs to increase wheat yields and improve food security, including the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution introduced new farming techniques and high-yielding varieties of wheat and other crops that were more responsive to fertilizers, resulting in an increase in agricultural production. Pakistan initially saw great success with a 79% increase in wheat production and an increase in rural income where the government invested in developmental programs such as irrigation systems, promotion of fertilizers and high-yield crops, and the introduction of tractors to increase crop production. However, over time, Pakistan was unable to sustain this high level of productivity, and the Green Revolution failed to have a sustainable impact on Pakistan's economy.
Roti a Lifesaver:
There is no doubt that Pakistan’s history did its people a commendable favor by cultivating and promoting wheat as much as it did. This is because of the South Asian body composition, and subsequently the region’s people having a predisposed inclination towards developing Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes.
Research has shown that South Asians with Indian subcontinental origins have a higher likelihood of developing non-communicable diseases such as metabolic dysfunction, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes mellitus due to their higher total and abdominal obesity, even at normal BMIs, compared to Caucasian populations. This is partly due to an inherent susceptibility to central fat deposition, which is the most significant risk factor for these conditions. Additionally, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, linked to insulin resistance, is also prevalent in Asian Indians, while research on South Asian skeletons has also revealed ancient origins of low tissue mass relative to height in the group!
This is where whole grain wheat being the staple diet in the region comes in. The people of Pakistan may have been dealt the short end of the stick in terms of genetics and inheritance but whole wheat and chapatis being a national constant have been a life saver. This is because Pakistani households have commonly employed whole wheat to make breads such as naan, chapati, and roti, which align with the American Heart Association's (AHA) recommendation of consuming at least 25 grams of fiber per day on a 2,000-calorie diet, with at least half of the grains being whole grains.
Even though wheat is mainly recognized as a major source of carbohydrates for the provision of energy, the grain is also a rich source of other essential macronutrients such as proteins, fiber, lipids, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Properties of Wheat:
Wheat is a complex carbohydrate, which means that instead of causing rapid sugar spike (hyperglycemia), the carbohydrates are digested slowly resulting in a gradual sustained release of glucose in the bloodstream. This prolonged release, coupled with the high fiber content of wheat contributes to lasting feelings of fullness and satiety while regulating blood sugar levels. Moreover, the fiber slows down the emptying of the stomach, hence improving digestion and thereby preventing sugar spikes and crashes that lead to feelings of hunger and fatigue.
The carbohydrate quality of wheat therefore, not only prevents noncommunicable diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, but also prevents rapid brain aging and dementia.
Pakistan had a relatively low incidence of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in the past, despite a genetic predisposition towards these conditions, thanks to a diet composed of whole wheat and simple curries. However, the gradual removal of whole grains like wheat from the modern Pakistani diet has led to a marked increase in these metabolic diseases.
Today, due to accelerated economic growth and urbanization in Pakistan, the traditional diet composed of chapati with vegetable, lentil or meat based curry is replaced by more Westernized diets that are high in refined carbohydrates and saturated fats. Even if roti is being consumed, the atta is of a more refined quality (maida) which ends up taking away the nutritional quality of the meal. With the prevalence of processed foods and sedentary lifestyles, coupled with low awareness of recreational physical activity, deaths caused by non-communicable diseases are on the rise.
According to official statistics, 46% of deaths in Pakistan are caused by non-communicable diseases, comprising around 380,000 males and 300,000 females, and the majority of these deaths are related to obesity. Moreover, studies have also shown that people living in Pakistan’s big cities are more likely to be obese than those in rural areas.
What Troubles Wheat:
We know wheat is essential to Pakistan and its people. Even if the more economically stable sectors of the Pakistani population are able to afford a more diversified diet, the poorer classes, which make up the majority of the country’s population, cannot. Hence, the farmers continue to grow this crop and the masses continue to line up to purchase said crop. However, the supply and demand of this staple food product is nowhere near as smooth as it should be, and the state that the market is in has many fearing the nation’s future.
Pakistani farmers have been equipped with better seeds and production systems which has resulted in phases of increased yields and production, however, a lack of sound policies and regulation of open markets has increased the country’s reliance on imports and the already depleting foreign reserves. The start of the year 2023 was extremely troublesome for the country, with the lingering effects of an anticipated default and the looming clouds of runaway inflation. A 20 kg bag of flour now costs Rs 3000 and more, which has made the staple unaffordable for many.
The crisis is multi-faceted and has been sustained for years by both domestic and international factors. One of the primary reasons for the wheat crisis in Pakistan is the country’s unsustainable practice of over relying on imports. Every year, Pakistan struggles to meet 10% of its wheat demand, which amounts to 2-3 million metric tons, through expensive imports.
This over-reliance on imports is due to the turbulent and volatile state of the international markets, which has resulted from various factors, including the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Both countries are significant exporters of wheat, and the ongoing war has disrupted the global supply chain and caused a shortage of wheat, which has led to a rise in the price of wheat on the international market. As a result, Pakistan has had to bear the brunt of the situation by importing wheat at exorbitant prices at the expense of the cash strapped nation’s exhausted foreign exchange reserves.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed its share of trouble to the wheat crisis in Pakistan. The pandemic has disrupted global supply chains, resulting in a shortage of wheat in many countries. This shortage has consequently led to an increase in the price of wheat on the international market, making it more expensive for Pakistan to import wheat. The pandemic has also led to a decline in the country's economy alongside a global recession due to the Russia-Ukraine war, resulting in lower incomes for many people. As a result, the rise in the price of wheat flour has put a significant financial burden on Pakistan's people.
Government Policies & Storage Facilities:
Even though Pakistan is the world’s eighth largest producer of wheat, its domestic production is still not sufficient enough to meet the growing demand of the exponentially multiplying population. This is because the government’s policies on procurement and storage, though well intended, cause more harm than good, due to inefficiencies and lack of regulations.
Pakistan's government has a wheat procurement policy that aims to support farmers and ensure food security by buying wheat from them at a fixed price, significantly higher than the market price. However, inefficiencies in the procurement and storage process result in a significant amount of wheat loss due to spoilage, pests, and theft. This wheat shortage has led to rising prices of wheat flour in the past years.
Despite the government's aim of supporting farmers and ensuring food security, their wheat procurement policy has been a source of confusion in Pakistan. In the Rabi season 2022-2023, Pakistan missed its wheat sowing target by 4% due to heavy rains and floods, resulting in the cultivation of only 21.94 million acres instead of the targeted 22.58 million acres. As a result, official stocks are depleting fast, and the private sector is reconsidering the commercial viability of imports at the current high world market price. The Trading Corporation of Pakistan is also experiencing procedural hiccups due to port disruptions.
The government's failure to anticipate the consequences of keeping millers out of the procurement process destabilized the supply chain, leading to millers demanding higher prices. The government's policy miscalculations resulted in a series of issues, including price escalation and flour being sold at different rates. The government was slow to realize the gravity of the situation, and this led to food insecurity for millions in the country. As a result, there is a pressing need for the government to review its wheat procurement and storage process to ensure adequate supply and prevent further wheat shortage and price escalation.
According to reports, the flood-affected areas experienced a loss of up to 20% of the 2022 wheat crop due to inadequately maintained warehouses and sub-standard storage facilities. Pakistan's annual wheat production is around 27 million tons and is valued at approximately US $7.4 billion. However, the country's storage capacity is less than 6 million tons, meaning that the remaining quantity of wheat is stored under unregulated conditions. This has resulted in a minimum of 10% loss of the remaining commodity, accounting for a staggering $740 million.
To address the wheat crisis in Pakistan, the government needs to increase investment in the agriculture sector, reform wheat procurement and storage policies, and provide farmers with better infrastructure, technology, and training to improve crop yields. Increasing domestic wheat production through simple changes in the production system and reducing losses through improved harvesting and storage can help address the crisis.
Additionally, exploring alternative sources of wheat, such as imports from other countries or investing in wheat substitutes, and adapting to changing climate conditions can expand production. To ensure an efficient and dynamic production system, better inputs, technology, machinery, and trained staff are necessary. A comprehensive approach is required to address the wheat crisis and ensure food security for citizens.
Wheat plays a vital role in Pakistan's economy, public health, culture and food security. The traditional rotis made from wheat have been a staple food for generations and are well-suited to the South Asian metabolism. However, with Pakistan facing significant challenges in recent times, food security has become a pressing concern. Addressing this issue is crucial for the nation's stability and prosperity.
To secure the future of the increasingly malnourished population, urgent action and agricultural reforms are needed. A well-fed and nourished population is the foundation of a capable nation, and it is imperative that Pakistan takes the necessary steps to ensure that its people have access to the food they need. Only then can Pakistan thrive and overcome the crises it faces.