Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

Should Pakistan grow food for the Gulf?

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Queuing to buy wheat flour in Peshawar/May file photoThis is an idea that looks crazy at first glance — Pakistan, struggling with its own food shortages and rising prices, rents out its farmland to grow grains for the rich Gulf states instead. 

But the idea appears to be gaining momentum. Saudi Arabia is holding talks with officials in Pakistan, among other countries, to set up projects to grow wheat and other grains to protect itself from crises in world food supplies. Dubai-based private equity firm Abraaj Capital has already said it is looking at investing in agriculture in Pakistan  and other Gulf countries are also showing an interest.

So is this good or bad news for Pakistan?

U.S. News & World Report says there may be ”potential for large and enduring benefits on both sides. The reported sellers of under-developed farmland, Pakistan and Sudan, for example, are poor and lack the resources to make their own land productive,” it says. “Foreign investment is meant to help the investor, but in these cases it might also help the host countries by improving roads and irrigation and, of course, providing cash.”

The Financial Times last month quoted a senior Pakistani official  as saying of the talks to sell farmland to the United Arab Emirates: “Our aim is not to do away with precious farmland but in fact to raise the productivity of our farms and turn barren land in to fertile farmland.”

Food crisis adds to Pakistan-Afghanistan tensions

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April photo of man at Kabul flour marketIt would be hard to think of a more complex web of problems.  Pakistan and Afghanistan face, in very different ways, severe domestic political crises which are being exacerbated by soaring prices and food shortages. Both blame each other for failing to crack down on the Taliban and al Qaeda. And now tensions are rising over attempts by Pakistan, the traditional supplier of food to Afghanistan, to curb its wheat exports to make sure it can feed its own hungry population.

For an idea of how significant this is in Afghanistan, it’s worth reading this piece in the Chicago Tribune. “Western officials – including officers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force – say the food crisis is potentially more destabilizing to the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai than the insurgency itself,” it says.

Afghan opium farmers follow the money

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The rising cost of food that is stirring unrest in the developing world may have one positive spin-off: Afghanistan’s opium farmers, attracted by high wheat prices, may be turning to legal crops.

The Financial Times quotes a recent commander of British forces in Helmand, the heartland of the country’s drugs trade, as saying there is anectodal evidence of such a switch in the southern province. With wheat prices at record highs farmers are calculating they will make money planting the crop, says Brigadier Andrew MacKay.

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