Via Financial Times

When Sabhi Khan looks out from his home in north-west Pakistan, he gives a prayer of thanks that the desert locust swarms devastating the region spared his wheat fields. But the 50-year-old farmer fears there may be worse to come.

In his native Dera Ismail Khan district, hundreds of farms have already been ruined. “Farmers owe me money, they still haven’t paid because their crops were damaged,” said Mr Khan. 

The India-Pakistan border, about 350km from Mr Khan’s farm, has been identified by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization as one of three areas globally with “threatening locust activity”. There are fears the swarms will get worse in the summer when new eggs hatch. 

The region’s worst invasion in 20 years has the potential to spiral out of control if measures to spray pesticides are not put in place, heaping pressure on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. 

The prospect of a crisis hitting the agricultural sector comes as Mr Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is struggling to rein in surging inflation, the result of a self-inflicted wheat shortage that has led to queues for flour from Islamabad to Karachi. 

Critics blame administrators in Punjab province, the country’s agricultural heartland, for failing to procure enough wheat. A ban on exports imposed in July was ineffective and smuggling shot up. Sugar prices followed, doubling in price to Rs64 ($0.41) a kilogramme from one year ago as a result of shortages rooted in bad management.

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The opposition alleges authorities did little to intervene. Inflation hit a nine-year high of 14.6 per cent in January, according to the State Bank of Pakistan. The poor have been particularly hard hit, with rural inflation surging into double digits and the cost of tomatoes skyrocketing 157 per cent from a year ago. 

Mr Khan has been accused of turning a blind eye to the plight of the middle class, his core constituency. It was only after months of elevated prices when he decided to address the topic. 

Mr Khan said in a post on Twitter on Sunday, that there would be a probe into the flour and sugar price rises. “The nation should rest assured that all those responsible will be held accountable and penalised.” 

On Tuesday, the government approved a subsidy of Rs10bn to bring down the prices of staples such as wheat, sugar and rice.

The cost of food had been expected to rise as a result of the devaluation of the rupee and utility price increases introduced as part of a $6bn IMF programme approved last year. But the unexpected shock of the surge in the cost of wheat and sugar has hammered Pakistanis during a time of slowing economic growth and job losses, fuelling doubts over the government’s capacity to handle the crisis.

“The food shortages look like they are getting worse not better,” said Matiullah Anwar, a plumber in Islamabad. 

Pakistan has ordered 300,000 tonnes of wheat which is scheduled to arrive on February 15 and is set to place an order for sugar.

“Speculation and hoarding is happening for key commodities like wheat and sugar, but what’s worrisome is the inability of the government to control it,” said Karachi-based economist Asad Sayeed. “There is this blind faith that stabilisation will be taken care of by the market,” he said. “That may be good in textbooks, but it’s not happening in this context.” 

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Inflation presents a serious challenge to Mr Khan’s government and has strained his fragile coalition government. He was forced to make an emergency trip to Lahore to quell discontent in his party after Punjab’s chief minister Usman Buzdar, handpicked by Mr Khan, was accused of botching the response to the wheat crisis. 

“This is deeply destabilising, Pakistan’s domestic politics is in a state of crisis right now,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia analyst at Stanford University. “Khan seems unable to keep his team together.” 

That makes the looming locust swarms all the more daunting, experts said. “There is a very serious threat of invasion, not only from spring breeding areas of Iran, but also perhaps from the Horn of Africa,” said Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at the FAO. 

Mr Khan, the farmer, is not leaving anything to chance. He sent his 12-year-old son to Islamabad to enrol in a madrassa, an Islamic school that provides food and board. “If my fields are attacked by locusts, at least my son will be safe,” said Mr Khan. “He won’t have to starve.”