Pakistan is facing various challenges, especially food insecurity owing to meagre allocation for research, shrinking agricultural land, disturbed weather pattern, water scarcity, slow pace of technology induction, the lack of crop diversification and value-addition, weak institutional support for the farmers and exports to a few markets.
The agriculture sector employs around 39 per cent of the population but the government only offers support to affluent people and not the marginalised rural communities, including small farmers.
Most of the subsidies provided to the wheat, sugar, electricity and fertiliser sectors are indirect, and; therefore, the marginalised small farmers, rural women and youth get little benefits.
However, small farmers are being offered direct transfer of subsidies for a few inputs. Extension (training and advisory) and other support services do not reach small farmers and rural women, quality and outreach are both limited.
Of the Rs1.2 billion agriculture loans, 16 per cent are borrowed by the subsistence level farmers, 32 per cent by mid to large size farmers, and 52 per cent by traders and processors of agricultural products.
There is an issue of low productivity and quality due to inputs affordability, which include raw materials, advanced technologies, information, advisory and financial services.
Punjab’s average wheat yield is 2,768kg/hectare, far below than its actual potential of 9,687kg/hectare. Even progressive farmers are getting 4,942kg/hectare, which is far below than the world’s average yield of 8,995kg/hectare. The same is the case with other major crops such as cotton, sugarcane, rice and maize.
Punjab’s average yield of cotton, sugarcane, rice and maize is 2,135, 61,875, 4,690 and 6,138kg/hectare, respectively, compared with the actual potential of 6,919, 177,916, 9,884 and 11,861kg/hectare, respectively.
The progressive farmers of the province are getting 4,448kg/hectare cotton, 108,726kg/hectare sugarcane, 8,599kg/hectare of rice and 7,907kg/hectare of maize.
The world’s best average yield of cotton, sugarcane, rice and maize is 5,436, 123,157, 10,181 and 9,766kg/hectare, respectively, which is two to three times more than the average yield in Punjab. Even the progressive farmers are not catching up with the world’s best yield for these major crops.
Experts said the Punjab farmers could get more yield than the world’s best average by using technology and adopting best farming practices but it needs the government ’s active support.
The technology adoption can increase productivity to the level of the progressive farmers, which can be elevated to the world’s best by focusing on research.
Pakistan spends just 0.18 per cent of GDP on research and development as against the world’s spending of 2.2 per cent. Conventional crops continue to dominate the sector with a slow pace of diversification towards high-value agriculture, livestock and fisheries.
Despite low returns, major crops continue to remain the primary focus for the farmers. With the passage of time, the share of other crops has dropped to 11 per cent of the agriculture GDP. The slow pace of diversification towards fruits, vegetables, flowers, oilseed, pulses, beans and grams is forcing agricultural countries like Pakistan to import a number of food items.
There are enormous opportunities to substitute imports in oilseed, pulses, beans and grams through promoting cultivation and use of modern technology. Through diversification and investment in the value-added sectors, Pakistan can increase exports of fruits, vegetables and processed food items, the experts said.
Uncompetitive and outdated marketing systems are benefiting the middlemen at the expense of farmers. Inability of farmers to store produce and unavailability of market intelligence has put small growers on the mercy of powerful middlemen.
Major export destinations of Pakistan are Afghanistan and the Gulf States. Only a few products have access to high-end markets such as China, Russia, the US and Europe.
Processing, value-addition and adoption of quality systems can increase export to the high-end markets. To achieve that Pakistan needs to mobilise investments in value-addition, increase access to information, finance and support services.
Adverse effects of climate change, including depletion of natural resources and an increase in the frequency of natural calamities have badly affected the agriculture sector.
Pakistan is ranked among 10 most climate vulnerable countries in the world, with the implication for agriculture and food security. Key risks included water shortage, shift in weather patterns, flash floods, heat stress and disease attacks that needed smart strategies for the agriculture sector. There is a need for research on biotechnologies for increasing yields and improving resistance in crops. Biogas can reduce methane emissions and provide an alternative source of energy. High efficiency irrigation technology can improve water use efficiency.
The experts believe that significant allocation for research, crop diversification, use of certified seeds and modern technology and better farming practices could boost the agriculture sector in Pakistan.
Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) chairman Dr Ghulam Muhammad Ali regretted that the housing societies were fast consuming orchards and fertile agricultural land.
There is a need to put an end to this dangerous trend and save agricultural land, he said, adding that there is also a need to increase allocation for research with the aim to enable the sector to perform up to its actual potential. However, the research allocation in Pakistan is the lowest in the region, he said.
“Pakistan’s allocation for agricultural research is just 0.18 per cent of the GDP. Sri Lanka is spending 0.62 per cent, China 0.5 per cent, Nepal 0.45 per cent and India 0.29 per cent of their agricultural GDP. We can increase yield by investing in research. It will also help earn precious foreign exchange by exporting agricultural products,” he said.
The Gulf countries are importing agricultural products from far-flung countries such as Brazil. By increasing the yield, Pakistan can export excess produce to the Gulf states.
He also suggested crop diversification for reducing the import bill of the country and said that there is a need to promote cultivation of sunflowers, canola, olive, lentils, sesame and other such items for easing burden on foreign exchange reserves.
PARC is promoting sowing of avocado and kiwi in different parts of the country, he added.
CropLife Biotechnology and Seed Committee head Muhammad Asim said that there is a need to use modern technology and adopt good farming practices for enhancing crop yield and to meet the future needs of the increasing population.
“Available agricultural land will be the same for [the] ever-increasing population. There is a need to enable farmers grow more on less land. Introduction of hybrid seeds has helped increase the yields of maize and rice in Pakistan,” he said, adding that giving farmers access to innovative technologies for ensuring food security in the days to come is also the need of the hour.
The farmers should not be deprived of the latest advancement in the agriculture sector such as disease, pest and climate resistant genetically modified seeds for various crops.
Supporting biotechnology, he said, would help reduce the input cost by minimising the use of pesticides, adding that the use of such seeds would also save the farming community from exposure to hazardous pesticides. He also suggested the use of drones for crop monitoring and insecticide spray.
“[The] use of drones will help identify [the] portions of crops under pests attack. [The] pictures will enable [the] farmers to apply only the required quantity of pesticides. It will put an end [to the] excessive use of pesticides, besides saving [the] community from hazards of direct exposure,” he added.