Recurrent shortages and sharp price fluctuations of wheat and flour point out bad governance and the government’s inability to check their hoarding and smuggling. The situation also warns of a looming food crisis, which may worsen if we fail to revolutionise our agriculture sector.
According to media reports, wheat flour prices have risen up to 94pc, while sugar rates witnessed a 69pc hike in the open market since the PTI came to power. A 20kg flour bag, which was available at Rs640 (ex-mill price) during September 2018, is selling at Rs1,060 to Rs1,240 on the open market in different parts of the country. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it was sold at Rs1,350. Similarly, sugar prices have soared by over 69pc during the period as the rates increased from Rs53 to Rs89/kg in the retail market, while its wholesale trading price went up from Rs47 to Rs76/kg during the period.
It is a fact that farmers and the common man have suffered badly while hoarders and middlemen benefited from the situation arising after the onset of the pandemic. About one- third of farm households in Pakistan have reported loss of earnings, and 22pc of had family members return home from urban areas. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) survey on “Covid-19 Impact on Farm Households in Punjab,” about 33pc of respondents indicated that their households experienced losses in wages and non-farm earnings because of the coronavirus outbreak. Some 22.6pc reported that at least one family member had returned home from urban and other areas, while 11.2pc posted reduced non-food expenditures, and 9.8pc recorded lower food consumption. The findings revealed that farm households were burdened by increase in the number of household members and reduced cash income. More than 400 farmers in the Punjab were surveyed on the impact of the nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic and locust attacks.
The survey of farmers in the Punjab revealed that wheat harvesting and marketing were spared the negative effects of the restricted movement of goods imposed because of Covid-19, except in the southern districts. Most respondents (97.3pc) recorded having completed harvesting their wheat, for the majority, the harvesting period started in the last week of April and ended in the second week of May. Among those who had completed their harvest at the time of the survey, 74.6pc reported that they were able to market their wheat without difficulty. Most of those who did not sell wheat kept the produce for self-consumption. Only a few respondents had difficulty selling their wheat. Restrictions on the movement of goods upset the marketing of highly perishable commodities, such as vegetables, fruits, and milk as they are difficult to store, unlike grains. Unlike the wheat farmers, large proportions of vegetable and fruit farmers reported difficulties in marketing their produce. Around 24pc of vegetable and fruit growers found the offered prices too low, 23.4pc could not visit markets, and 8pc could not find traders to sell their produce.
Pakistan faces a serious flour crisis almost every year despite the fact that wheat production increased by 2.5pc and reached around 25m tons last year. According to the Economic survey of Pakistan, the agriculture sector, on the aggregate, recorded a remarkable growth of 2.67pc in 2019-20, compared to 0.58pc growth achieved the previous year. Positive growth was noted in all important crops except cotton and sugarcane. However, the locust outbreak which started to emerge in later part of 2019, turned serious and agriculture losses were reported to main crop production areas in Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh provinces. Over 115,000 hectares of crops, including wheat, oil seed crops, cotton, gram, fruits and vegetables, besides grazing field losses were reported. Some crop losses were also reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Positive growth of 2.90pc in important crops was observed due to an increase in the production of wheat, rice and maize at 2.45pc, 2.89pc, and 6.01pc, respectively. Cotton and sugarcane posted negative growth of 6.92pc and 0.44pc, respectively. Other crops also showed growth of 4.57pc, mainly because of an increase in the production of pulses, oilseeds and vegetables. Cotton ginning declined by 4.61pc due to a decrease in the production of cotton while the livestock sector posted growth of 2.58pc.
The performance of agriculture during fiscal year 2019-20 improved over the last year and it also performed better than other sectors. However, challenges due to climate change, pest attacks, shortage of water etc kept agriculture production far less than the potential. One key issue related to agriculture was that farmers have limited direct access to the market due to which the role of middlemen increased. In terms of potential, the agriculture sector has the capacity to not only produce for the domestic population but to have surplus production for exports which can ensure food security as well as contribute to foreign exchange earnings.
According to the 2020 World Population Data Sheet, released by the US Population Reference Bureau, Washington, Pakistan’s population is estimated at 220.9 million and it is growing rapidly with an annual fertility rate of 3.6 children per couple. At Pakistan’s growth rate — 3.6 — a population doubles in 19.4 years. Agriculture has a significant share in the Pakistan economy. It contributes 18.5pc to its GDP and provides employment to 38.5pc of the national labour force, but it remains a backward sector of the economy. The government recognises high performing agriculture as the key to economic growth and poverty alleviation.
However, despite being the backbone of the national economy, the agriculture sector has not been a priority of any government. It is the time Pakistan started using modern technology to increase its productivity in the face of serious challenges posed by the rising population and climate change.