NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 14

Agriculture disparities and climate challenges

In the intricate web of Pakistan’s agricultural landscape, a troubling narrative unfolds. Essential public services, critical to the health of the sector, are disproportionately favoring large farmers, leaving smallholders in the shadows. Government subsidies and credit flows, vital for sustained growth, predominantly enrich major players, deepening rural poverty. The ominous specter of climate change further compounds these challenges. As successive governments turn a blind eye to policy recommendations, the need for a transformative shift becomes ever more urgent.

Amidst the ongoing discord among political factions and influential circles in the country, successive governments have unfortunately overlooked the crucial agriculture sector, which serves as the backbone of Pakistan’s economy by all measures. The repercussions are evident: the nation is grappling with various crises, including food inflation, a decline in exports, and the looming threat of default.

Ahmad Jawad, the former chairman of the standing committee on agriculture of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, contends that misguided priorities of consecutive administrations have plunged the country into multifaceted crises. Despite attempting diverse strategies such as rapid industrialization and private sector investments in services, all endeavors have thus far ended in failure. Jawad emphasizes that policymakers must recognize that a thriving agriculture sector is the sole guarantee for the country’s prosperous future.

Expressing regret, Ahmad Jawad highlights low budgetary allocations for the agriculture sector. Additionally, the sector is undergoing a significant transformation, relinquishing its most fertile lands to housing societies. It has become the weakest link in current macroeconomic planning and strategies. Issues such as locust attacks, poor governance, inadequate planning, climate change, and insufficient investment in seed technology and agriculture research have already led to shortages of essential crops like wheat, sugar, and cotton. Jawad voices concerns about the substantially high import bill for cotton due to record-low production.

Undoubtedly, the agricultural performance of the country has been consistently mediocre. The growth has averaged 2-3% over the past few decades, falling short of the 4-5% needed to achieve overall economic targets. Yields from crops and livestock are lower compared to similar countries, leading to the need for imports, while exports remain far below their potential.

Daud Khan, a retired UN staff member, attributes the poor agricultural performance in Pakistan to inequitable resource access, particularly a highly skewed pattern of land ownership. A mere 2% of farmers possess 45% of all agricultural land, leaving the remaining 55% to the remaining 98%. The dominance of 7.4 million smallholders, cultivating less than 12.5 acres each, underscores a skewed distribution of power, access to government services, and other essential resources such as water, credit, and technology. Larger farmers often disproportionately receive irrigation water, leading to overuse or wastage, while smallholders, especially those at the tail end of irrigation channels, face insufficient and unreliable water access.

The economist laments that essential public services, such as those for animal health, are disproportionately and freely provided to large farmers and commercial dairy units, while small livestock holders must provide incentives to government animal health workers for attending to their sick animals. Government subsidies predominantly favor large farmers, and credit primarily flows to major landlords, commercial livestock units, and processing facilities. These disparities not only contribute to overall poor performance but also result in high levels of rural poverty, significantly impacting the well-being of a large portion of the population. The looming threat of climate change further exacerbates these challenges.

According to Daud Khan, successive governments have consistently ignored agriculture policy documents prepared by donors and think tanks, often influenced by powerful lobbies that have formed around distorted policies. This pattern, he emphasizes, must change. Agriculture, especially smallholder agriculture, stands as the key to advancing national development goals. The government should prioritize both the reform agenda and the design and, most importantly, the implementation of projects and programs.

Recently, the agriculture sector has faced increased challenges due to climate change. With the climate crisis escalating, the country anticipates more floods, droughts, and heightened water scarcity. There is no single technological solution to the diverse threats posed by climate-induced disasters. Instead, adaptation requires the pursuit of a range of strategies, some for the short term and others with a longer gestation period.

Syed Mohammad Ali, an academic and researcher, proposes that Pakistan transition to cultivating crops with higher yields and resilience to heat and drought, specifically tailored to the varied agro-ecological zones within the country. Technological approaches like laser land leveling could enhance water efficiency, and solar power-driven irrigation systems could reduce air pollution and emissions. However, the adoption of such measures should not bypass poor farmers, as this would worsen rural inequalities, leading to further depeasantization and increased pressure on already burgeoning urban centers.

In this transformative process, the role of governments, both federal and provincial, is crucial. It is imperative to make agricultural policies in the country more progressive and accessible. Apart from ensuring fair wages for landless agricultural workers, there is a need to formulate subsidy schemes and other incentives that actively involve smaller farmers in enhancing the productivity, resilience, and sustainability of agriculture. Immediate corrective measures are essential; otherwise, the sector may face destruction to a degree that becomes irreversible and irreparable.

In the crucible of Pakistan’s agricultural struggles, the path forward demands immediate and comprehensive action. The inequities in service provision, subsidies, and credit distribution have cast a long shadow of rural poverty, jeopardizing the well-being of a significant population. Climate change adds another layer of complexity, requiring adaptive strategies for both the short and long term. Syed Mohammad Ali’s proposal for tailored crop cultivation and technological solutions holds promise but underscores the necessity of inclusion to prevent exacerbating existing inequalities. Governments, at both federal and provincial levels, must take a leading role in crafting progressive, accessible policies. Fair wages for landless agricultural workers, thoughtful subsidy schemes, and incentives for smaller farmers are the cornerstones of a resilient and sustainable agricultural future. The urgency is clear; corrective measures are imperative to avert irreversible damage to a sector vital for the nation’s prosperity.