The winter season has gripped the country’s plains and hilly areas alike these days, though the intensity of cold varies from +15 to -15 Celsius in different regions. However, one thing among various areas that keeps them united in chilling cold is the use of dried fruits and nuts; and at the top of the list is moong-phali, or groundnuts. Along every city road and at every street corner, one may see pushcarts selling groundnuts along with other nuts. Some are roasting the fresh produce on-the-spot, filling the environment with an enticing aroma to attract nut-lovers.
However, it is only one aspect of the ‘fruit’ grown under the ground in various regions of the country. Agronomists say groundnut is the most important, but equally neglected, cash crop of the Potohar region of Pakistan. Every year, an estimated area brought under cultivation for groundnut is 81,500 hectares, with annual production of 91,400 tonnes and average per hectare dry pods yield of around 1,121kg. The province-wise distribution showed that about 85% of the cultivation area lies in Punjab, 10% in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and 5% in Sindh.
Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) Chairman Dr. Ghulam Muhammad Ali agrees that groundnut must be promoted as another cash crop in the country, especially to meet food and oil needs of the increasing population. In a telephonic talk with Cutting Edge, he says the council has started work on new breeding technologies including speed cloning, speed breeding, genomic selection and genomic editing for the enhancement of crop production and achieving food safety and security in the country.
Referring to a report, published by Gwadar Pro last month (Dec 2021), he believes Pak-China cooperation in peanut cultivation can be a solution to high edible oil prices in Pakistan. During the last few months, the federal government faced severe criticism over an unprecedented increase in edible oil prices. The National Price Monitoring Committee asked the Ministry of Industries & Production to control edible oil prices by exploring alternative options for imported palm and soybean oil. The Gwadar Pro report says Shandong Rainbow Agricultural Technology Co. of China has been planning Pak-China peanut oil cooperation for a few years, which may meet Pakistan’s demand. Dr. Ghulam Muhammad Ali says that peanut oil is the world’s best frying oil besides being a very important source of protein. Its kernel is rich in both oil (43-55%) and protein (25-28%). Its oil contains about 22% linoleic acid and 61% oleic acid and is considered one of the best vegetable oils for human consumption due to its high smoking point. It is desirable for use in ghee, margarine, shortening and salad oil. Groundnut is also an excellent source of vitamins and contains high levels of thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.
Muhammad Jahanzaib, scientific officer of the Oil Seed Research Programme in National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC), believes the country can reduce its import bill of edible oil amounting to millions of dollars by focusing on the cultivation of groundnut locally. He says that NARC has started attaching high importance to the peanut industry in Pakistan.
Besides the Potohar region, the area under peanut cultivation is being increased in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Last year, peanuts had been cultivated on about 40,000 kanals of arid land in Chota Lahor, Swabi district of KP. The crop is being grown in various areas, especially Chota Lahor, Jalsai, Jalbai and Tordher. Only wheat and peanuts could be grown there due to the arid nature of the land, he adds.
The scientific officer says newly developed groundnut varieties and improved package of technology are being adopted on an area of 20,000 acres which is about 8-10% of the total groundnut area in the country. This is contributing 4,000 tonnes extra production of pods worth Rs. 600 million annually to the agrarian economy. The area under these varieties is increasing every year.
He regrets that currently no private organisation is producing groundnut seed commercially. A limited quantity of pure seed of improved varieties is being produced/ multiplied by the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) and Barani Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), Chakwal, for distribution and commercial production to the growers. “To meet demand on a small-scale, we have identified and introduced master growers for the production of pure seed of improved cultivars. They are producing and selling their own seed commercially,” he says.
Muhammad Jahanzaib says presently groundnuts are eaten as roasted nuts in the shell. A very small amount of the produce is used for confectionery purposes. Few traditional dishes utilise groundnut and no oil is produced from groundnuts on a commercial scale. The overall market for groundnuts is limited. Therefore, any increase in production will result in a decrease in groundnut prices unless alternative markets are encouraged. These potential markets are production of groundnut oil for edible purposes and export, production of peanut butter, and other confectionery items. A pilot groundnut oil crushing project indicated that at the current high price of groundnuts the oil would not be priced competitively with vegetable ghee produced from cottonseed and imported oils. Groundnuts have no support price mechanism and the price fluctuates widely each year. To encourage groundnut production and domestic groundnut crushing for oil, a support price and guaranteed market will be required, he believes.
Currently, two types of groundnut varieties, spreading (runner) and erect or bunchy types, are widely grown in Pakistan. Dr. Ghulam Muhammad Ali says groundnut can be grown successfully in areas where 250-300mm well-distributed rain is received during the growing period of April to September. Mostly, groundnut in Pakistan is planted in fallow lands from early March to end-April, to conserve soil moisture received during winter rains. It can also be planted in May and June after wheat harvest if adequate moisture is available. But the crop does not mature properly and its yield decreases considerably. The optimum planting time in Punjab (Potohar region) is April. Under irrigated conditions, it is planted in early March and harvested in August. In Sindh, the best planting time is May. Short-duration varieties maturing in 120-130 days can be planted at the onset of monsoon in late June or early July. Dr. Ali believes a focussed approach could help increase groundnut production and decrease prices of edible oil in the country.