NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 50

Cultivating sunflower: A solution to Pakistan’s oilseed production dilemma

Pakistan’s oilseed production is facing numerous challenges, with soybean cultivation remaining at low levels due to harsh climate conditions and limited seed varieties. As a result, experts in the agricultural field are advocating for an alternative—sunflower cultivation. However, the transition to sunflower as a cash crop requires special efforts from both federal and provincial governments.

Typically, farmers prefer Rabi crops like wheat over oilseeds, even though sunflower and soybeans, which can be grown during the Kharif season, hold great potential. Experts emphasize the critical need for change, warning that food security in Pakistan is at risk if the country continues cultivating less suitable crops. In this context, it’s essential to incentivize sunflower production and take concrete steps to bridge the gap between local production and soaring import demands.

The term “cash crop” is commonly associated with cotton farming in Pakistan, but it holds a broader significance in the global agricultural sector. According to agronomists, any crop, whether it’s a grain, legume, fruit, or another plant, grown not for consumption by the farmers but specifically for sale to generate profit, falls under the category of “cash crops.” Some crops exhibit higher density and productivity than others, making them attractive choices for farmers. These crops offer substantial returns on investment, requiring relatively small plots of land to yield significant results. Among the local agricultural community, there’s a belief that oil-producing plants, such as sunflowers, can be more profitable than any other cash crop, including cotton, in Pakistan. This is due to their essential role in global trade and contemporary food consumption.

A research study conducted by the Agricultural Research Institute in Tarnab, Peshawar, reveals that sunflower cultivation as a cash crop has witnessed a significant increase over the past two decades. The study aimed to analyze trends in sunflower acreage, production, and trade patterns while identifying its potential to enhance oilseed production in the country. It also aimed to pinpoint factors and obstacles contributing to fluctuations in sunflower acreage and production.

The study’s findings indicate that sunflower crops have gained popularity among farmers in Pakistan due to their fast growth and the ability to be planted between regular planting seasons. They also thrive in diverse soil conditions and produce high yields. With a substantial demand for sunflower oil in Pakistan, this crop has become a reliable source of income for farmers, contributing to sustainable community growth. Remarkably, sunflowers mature in just three months.

Given the rapidly growing population and changing climate patterns, the need for altering crop patterns has become increasingly critical. Despite Pakistan’s agricultural nature, food imports surged by 82 percent in August 2021 compared to the previous year, as reported by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. Official data indicated a nearly 40 percent year-on-year increase in ghee and cooking oil prices in September 2021. Notably, palm oil imports, a major component of food imports, more than doubled in dollar value in August 2021 compared to 2020. This oil, which averages around $2 billion in imports annually, is a staple sourced from Malaysia and Indonesia, both countries with trade agreements with Pakistan. During the first half of 2021, edible oil prices reached multi-year highs, rising by as much as 62 percent. A combination of adverse weather conditions in key producing countries and the growing use of biofuels had strained supplies.

The declining oilseed production in Pakistan is a cause for concern, primarily due to the decrease in cotton production, which leads to reduced cottonseed availability. In the past, the federal and provincial governments initiated oilseed promotion efforts, offering growers a subsidy of Rs. 5,000 per acre for planting up to 20 acres of canola and sunflower. While this initiative led to some increased planting, it didn’t bring a substantial breakthrough, largely due to competition from major crops like wheat and sugarcane, which benefit from support prices. This situation should raise alarm bells for relevant government departments.

Agricultural experts point out that soybean production remains at a very low level in Pakistan, primarily due to harsh summer conditions and a lack of suitable seed varieties for cultivation. In this scenario, those involved in agriculture need to explore alternatives, with sunflower emerging as a top contender in Pakistan.

However, both federal and provincial governments must implement specific measures to encourage farmers to adopt sunflower as a “cash crop.” Most oilseeds are typically Rabi crops, leading farmers to prioritize wheat over oilseeds. Even for sunflower and soybeans, which can be grown during the Kharif season, farmers often find cotton, rice, corn, and sugarcane more financially appealing.

Imran Nasrullah, Chief Executive Officer/Country Lead of Cargill Pakistan, warns that Pakistan’s food security situation will deteriorate if the country continues to cultivate less suitable crops. Imran, who holds an MBA from Imperial College London and is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England, highlights that Pakistan is among the largest importers of soybeans, palm oil, and various other food ingredients. Palm oil, in particular, ranks as one of Pakistan’s most significant imports. He points out that Pakistan produces approximately 0.7 million tons of oilseeds, including canola, rapeseeds, mustard seeds, sunflower, sesame, but not cottonseed. However, the country imports 3.5 million tons of oilseeds, while the total requirement stands at 4.2 million tons. This gap is widening due to population growth and a 2 to 2.5 percent annual increase in meat consumption. Imran believes that the government needs to incentivize oilseeds production, particularly sunflower, which is well-suited to the local climate and soils.

Muhammad Aftab, Chief Scientist at the Oilseed Research Institute in Faisalabad, underscores the significance of sunflower as one of the world’s most important oilseed crops and the third most important in Pakistan after cotton, rapeseed, and mustard. He reveals that Pakistan only produces 18 percent of its required edible oil locally, while the rest is imported. Sunflower contributes 11 percent to the local oil production. A government subsidy program has been initiated to boost sunflower production in Pakistan. Sunflower seeds contain 40 percent oil and are rich in vitamins A, B, and K. Sunflower oil is considered heart-healthy as it contains 90 percent unsaturated fatty acids, including 30 percent monounsaturated Omega-9 and 59 percent polyunsaturated Omega-6. The crop has a short growth period (100-120 days), can be grown twice a year, and can fit well into various crop rotations.

Aftab urges farmers to maximize sunflower cultivation, suggesting that local sunflower planting could significantly reduce the country’s annual import bill, which currently amounts to about Rs300 billion. The Agriculture Department has divided Punjab into three zones for sunflower cultivation, with specific timelines for each region. He recommends that farmers in Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur start cultivating sunflower in the last week of December, completing it by January 31. Meanwhile, those in Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Khanewal, Multan, Muzaffargarh, Layyah, Lodhran, Bhakkar, Vehari, and Bahawalnagar should undertake cultivation from January 1 to January 31. Similarly, farmers in Faisalabad, Mianwali, Sargodha, Khushab, Jhang, Sahiwal, Okara, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Lahore, Mandi Bahauddin, Kasur, Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib, Narowal, Attock, Rawalpindi, Gujrat, and Chakwal should cultivate the crop from January 15 to February 15.

Aftab also recommends the use of hybrid sunflower varieties, such as Hi-sun-33, Hi-sun-39, T-40318, Agora-4, NKR Mini, US-666, US-444, PAR-Sun-3, Oxen-5264, Oxen-5270, S-278, HSF-360-A, Sun-7, Arvi-Sun-648, and Arvi-Sun-516, as they are not only disease-resistant but also offer high yields. Farmers are advised to use 2 kilograms of high-quality seed per acre, with a growth ratio exceeding 90 percent to ensure an adequate number of plants in their fields.

Pakistan’s agricultural landscape must adapt to shifting conditions and rising food demand. Sunflower emerges as a viable solution, boasting qualities like a short growth period, suitability for different soil types, and the potential for two annual harvests. By promoting sunflower cultivation and investing in research for disease-resistant hybrid varieties, Pakistan can significantly reduce its oilseed import bill, enhance local oil production, and bolster food security. The government’s role in encouraging and supporting sunflower cultivation is pivotal in mitigating the challenges posed by low oilseed production and ensuring a sustainable agricultural future for the nation.