NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 6

How to meet national food needs

What is the use of an agrarian country for its poor people if they have to purchase one kilogram of wheat flour for 80 rupees, in a monthly income of 15,000 to 18,000 rupees on an average?

Does it seem an irrelevant question in Pakistan these days, while the international community marked World Food Day last week? The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says the day is celebrated on October 16 every year to raise awareness about the issue of hunger and healthy food habits for all. Originally, the day was marked to celebrate the establishment of FAO in the year 1979, as recommended by former Hungarian minister of agriculture and food Dr. Pal Romany.

With the passing years, it led to raising awareness about hunger, malnutrition, sustainability, and food production. The theme for the World Food Day 2021 was “Safe food now for a healthy tomorrow”. However, a book launched on the day titled “Our actions are our future: Better production, better nutrition, better environment and a better life”, seems more relevant in Pakistan’s context as far as its title and content are concerned.

James Beard, a teacher at The James Beard Cooking School in New York City and a television personality, had said: “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts!” But, regrettably, people are finding it hard in Pakistan to provide themselves and their families with three meals a day due to food inflation, among other reasons, lately.

The day marking has many aspects, but in these lines focus would be on “Our actions are our future: Better production, better nutrition.” Of course, we need to grow more wheat, our staple food, we need to sow better yielding wheat varieties of the crop to meet our annual needs comfortably.

In this age of fast communication and close coordination around the globe, Pakistan could learn lessons from New Zealand, which is getting wheat yield up to nine tonnes per hectare. Various other nations are producing five or six tonnes per hectare. In India, the yield is four tonnes and in China six tonnes per hectare.

University of Agriculture Faisalabad (UAF) Dean Faculty of Food Nutrition and Home Sciences Dr. Masood Sadiq Butt says that Pakistan’s wheat yield surpassed the 2.5 tonnes-per-hectare level back in 2005 ,and has since ranged between 2.5 and 3 tonnes with little yearly variations. Since 2005, per-hectare yield in Sindh has remained higher than in other provinces. In 2017-18, Sindh provincial average wheat yield was 3.3 tonnes per hectare ahead of 2.9 tonnes for Punjab, 2.4 tonnes for Balochistan and below two tonnes for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. All provinces need to learn from the yield-boosting experiences of Sindh at least even if they don’t consult New Zealand for the purpose.

Dr. Masood Sadiq tells Cutting Edge that for taking the per-hectare yield of wheat gradually from the current level of below 3m tonnes to 6m tonnes within a decade, it is necessary to make more financial allocations for food security and crop research. Provinces also need to draw their own provincial-level grow-more-wheat programmes and ensure that provincial yearly yield rises to the level where it can impact favourably on average national yield.

The agriculturist says that in the past 15 years, the nation has made several efforts to develop higher-yielding wheat varieties and adopted new crop management techniques. However, on the national level, the focus has remained more on harvesting a “bumper” wheat crop instead of making substantial and sustainable gains in wheat yield.

In the last 15 years, the area under wheat crop has remained range-bound between eight and nine million hectares and there is not much room for increasing the expanse of wheat cultivation without taking a hit on sugarcane or rice. Rebalancing allocation of areas under cultivation of key food crops definitely helps in obtaining the required volume of a certain crop, but that is not a lasting solution for taking the total output of that crop to the desired level year after year. According to a paper of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), prepared during the previous government, Pakistan’s wheat requirement would reach close to 31.5m tonnes in 2025 and exceed 34m tonnes by 2030. The projections are based on the assumption that the population growth rate would average 1.8 percent, the per-person wheat requirement would be 120kg per year and the country would keep at least 1m tonnes in food security reserves.

Agriculturists believe that regardless of all mismanagement and even corruption in wheat handling in the country, which creates a repeated wheat flour crisis, two decisive factors stand out. First, it is wrongly assumed that our national wheat requirement is around 26 million tonnes, and the crop output exceeding this level is “bumper”. And the second, a decent increase in the yield like that of 7% in 2016-17 is never sustained.

According to the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) report, the country’s total wheat requirement was projected at 28.8m tonnes for 2020. Officials of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research admitted in a working paper that in the current year 2021, total wheat requirement was 27.5m tonnes.

Another impediment to producing more wheat is the absence of provincial-level initiatives to strike a balance between the imperative of national food security and political interests that play a pivotal role in setting short-term policy priorities. The provinces will have to shun their differences and take more aggressive measures to meet the food needs of the country.