FeaturedNationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 10

Economy can’t improve without agriculture upgrade

The National Assembly was informed recently that Pakistan has become a net importer of food, at a time when its prices are unprecedentedly high in the world in the wake of pandemic shocks and the Russia-Ukraine war. Pakistan is importing wheat, sugar and 70pc of pulses, which is a matter of serious concern. Every government focuses on improving the economy but no significant progress is possible without upgrading the agriculture sector. It is the only way to provide edibles to the common people at low prices.

It is a fact that agriculture was ignored by successive governments in the past. The result is that Pakistan faces shortages and high prices of foodstuffs. Wheat and sugar have been in short supplies and their prices are abnormally high for years now. The government has been importing them to check their prices, which costs it dearly. The situation cannot be allowed to continue as it will pose serious threats to Pakistan’s food security and economy.

Pakistan’s food imports have gone. The country’s food imports went up to $2.79 billion in July-September 2022. In the corresponding period last year, the imports were Rs2.11 billion. Wheat imports in July-September shot up by 311pc and cost $407 million. Last year, $99 million in wheat was imported in the same time period. Cooking oil imports went up by 34pc and cost $1.24 billion. Tobacco imports increased by 26pc and vegetable and fruit imports by 8pc. However, sugar imports dropped by 98pc, and tea and coffee imports by 9pc. In September, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics said the country’s annual edible imports had spiked by 64.54pc. Pakistan’s food imports, including wheat, palm oil, and soybean oil, went up by 64.45pc in July and August. According to PBS statistics, Pakistan imported food items worth Rs392.83 billion in the first two months of the fiscal year 2022-23. Last year, the country’s food import bill for the same months was Rs238.88b. The biggest spike was noticed in the wheat import which went up by a staggering 2435pc in the first two months of the fiscal year. Pakistan has imported wheat worth Rs68.49 billion this year, while the wheat import bill for July and August 2021 was only Rs2.70 billion. Pakistan imported palm oil worth Rs157.79 billion, 68.67pc higher than last year, and soybean oil worth Rs9.48 billion, 255.36pc higher than last year.

To stem the tide, the previous government announced a two-tier intervention strategy to transform the agriculture sector to boost its growth. According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2020-21, shrinking arable land, climate change, water shortages and labour shift from rural to urban areas were main constraints to the growth of the sector. The government approved an action plan with a specific timeline for interventions, yield gaps and particular sectoral issues in a two-tier strategy to be implemented both by the federation and federating units. To achieve the targets of cotton revival, olive deepening, and genetic improvement in livestock, first generation interventions aimed at bridging yield gaps, suggesting revisiting the criteria for induction, performance, evaluation and cancellation of seed companies, delineating separate requirements for local seed producers and importers with mandatory local seed production by the latter.

It also included a system for consumer traceability for seed authenticity as well as certified seed track and traceability. The plan entailed a digital subsidy mechanism (Kisan card) for inputs, an emphasis on mechanisation and water efficiency, revamping extension services, and restructuring research institutes. It set a Rs1.5 trillion farm credit disbursement target for the current fiscal, 23.5pc higher than the previous year’s Rs1.215tr. The initiatives for promoting farm financing included loan repayment relief to dampen Covid-19 effects, crop loan insurance, a livestock insurance scheme for borrowers, regulatory space for innovative financing, an e-credit scheme in Punjab, and a credit guarantee scheme for small and marginalised farmers.

The government also aimed to go for crop zoning, land consolidation, organic farming, adaptation and self-discovery with second generation interventions, which include horizontal expansion, seeking international cooperation in technology transfer, developing value chains of various farm and livestock products, setting up clusters of fruit and vegetables packaging and processing industries. Focusing the persistent cotton crop failure, the survey noted biotic stresses of white-fly and pink bollworm, abiotic stresses like climate change, heat stresses and extreme rainfalls, poor agricultural practices, unnecessary use of pesticides, higher costs of inputs, lack of early generation seed as the factors contributing to the white lint decline.

It quoted experts as suggesting cotton zoning with fixing minimum indicative or intervention prices, and timely issuance of subsidies as indispensable to revive the crop and exploring avenues for cotton growing in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where pest pressure is low and cotton yields are reportedly higher than traditional areas of Punjab and Sindh.

However, the water crisis is worsening in the country. Punjab and Sindh accused each other of water theft. The country will have to address the issue for sustainable agriculture growth.