NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 12

Sunflowers a lucrative cash crop

The word “cash crop” is associated with the cotton crop in Pakistan, but the concept has wider scope in the agriculture sector across the globe. According to agronomists, any grain, legume, fruit, or other plant crop grown not for consumption by the farmers, but specifically to be sold for profit are included in the list of “cash crops”. Some crops grow more densely and productively than others, meaning that they are great choices for farmers. These crops give farmers a lot of return on their investment, requiring relatively little land to produce big results. Local agriculturists believe oil-producing plants, sunflower, can be more profitable than any other cash crop, including cotton, in Pakistan, for being an essential part of the worldwide trade and food consumption today.

According to a research study conducted by Agricultural Research Institute, Tarnab, Peshawar, sunflower cultivation as a cash crop has increased many times during the last two decades. The study was conducted to examine the trends in sunflower acreage, production and trade patterns and to determine its potential to increase the oilseed production in the country and to identify factors and constraints for fluctuations in sunflower acreage and production.

The study findings say the sunflower crop also attracted farmers in Pakistan for being a fast-growing crop that can be planted in between planting seasons. It tolerates a wide variety of soil conditions and the crop brings in high yields. With high demand for sunflower oil in Pakistan, it has become an excellent source of income for farmers, and can help support sustainable growth in communities. The crop gets ready in just three months.

With an increase in the population at a fast rate, to meet their food needs and due to changing weather patterns, the need for changing crop patterns has also increased manifold. Despite Pakistan being an agrarian country, food imports increased by 82 per cent in August 2021, compared to August last year, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.

The official data showed that ghee and cooking oil prices at home had increased roughly by 40 per cent, year-on-year in September 2021 — palm oil imports, the biggest component of food imports, more than doubled in terms of dollar value in August 2021, compared to 2020. Fluctuating around $2 billion every year, palm oil is a staple of food imports sourced from Malaysia and Indonesia, both countries with which we have trade agreements. In the first half of 2021, edible oil prices were at a multi-year high, rising as much as 62 per cent. Bad weather conditions in major producing countries and increasing use of biofuels had constrained supplies.

It must set alarm bells ringing at the departments concerned that the country’s oilseed production is declining due to falling cotton production, which leads to a decrease in cottonseed. In the past, the federal and provincial governments had launched an oilseed promotion initiative and growers received a subsidy of Rs.5,000 per acre for planting up to 20 acres of canola and sunflower. The initiative resulted in some planting increases, but a significant breakthrough did not happen mainly due to competition from major crops i.e., wheat and sugarcane, that have the benefit of support prices.

Agricultural experts say soybean production stands at a very low level in Pakistan, and it is difficult to increase due to harsh summer conditions and a lack of planting seed varieties in the country. In this situation, those attached with the field would have to look for alternatives, and the best could be sunflowers in Pakistan.

However, the federal and provincial governments would have to take special measures to make famers go for the “cash crop”. As most oilseeds are Rabi crops, farmers tend to opt for wheat over oilseeds. For sunflower and soybeans, the two crops that could be produced during the Kharif season, farmers tend to view cotton, rice, corn and sugarcane as more profitable options.

Imran Nasrullah, Chief Executive Officer/ Country Lead of Cargill Pakistan, says food insecurity will worsen in Pakistan if the country keeps growing wrong crops. An MBA graduate of Imperial College London and a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England, Imran says Pakistan is among largest importers of soybean, as well as palm oil and other food ingredients. Palm oil is one of Pakistan’s largest imports. He says Pakistan produces approximately 0.7 million tons of oilseeds, which is split among canola, rapeseeds, mustard seeds, sunflower, sesame, and this excludes cottonseed. Pakistan imports 3.5 million tons of oilseeds whereas the total requirement is 4.2 million tons. The gap is large because the population growth and meat consumption is growing at 2 to 2.5 per cent, he says. He believes the government will have to incentivise oilseeds production, especially sunflower, which suits the local weather conditions and soils.

Muhammad Aftab, Chief Scientist, Oilseed Research Institute, Faisalabad, says sunflower is one of the most important oilseed crops of the world and the third most important oilseed crop after cotton, rapeseed and mustard in Pakistan. Pakistan produces only 18 percent of required edible oil locally, while the rest is imported from other countries. Sunflower contributes 11pc to the local production of oil. He says the government has launched a subsidy programme to enhance the production of sunflowers in Pakistan. Sunflower seed contains 40pc oil and is a good source of vitamins A, B and K. Sunflower oil is considered best for heart patients as it contains 90pc unsaturated fatty acids. It contains 30pc monounsaturated Omega-9 and 59pc polyunsaturated Omega-6. It has a short growth period (100-120 days) and can be grown twice a year and has the ability to be well-fitted in different crop rotations.

He called upon farmers to bring maximum land under cultivation of the cash crop. He believes sunflower sowing locally can help the country slash its import bill, which is about Rs300 billion per annum. He says the Agriculture Department has divided Punjab into three zones for cultivation and better production of the sunflower crop. Growers of Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur should start cultivation of sunflower in the last week of December 2021 and complete it till January 31, while those in Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Khanewal, Multan, Muzaffargarh, Layyah, Lodhran, Bhakkar, Vehari and Bahawalnagar should cultivate it from 1st to 31st of January. Similarly, farmers of 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.

The scientist says the sugarcane crushing season has started and farmers should cultivate sunflowers immediately after harvesting the crop and complete it by mid-February at every cost. He suggests cultivating hybrid sunflower varieties, like 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, etc, because the varieties are not only disease-resistant but also provide bumper yields. Farmers should use 2-kilogram per acre high-quality seed which has over 90pc growth ratio to complete the number of plants in the field.