FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 30

Time to upgrade, diversify agriculture

Pakistan’s agriculture sector grew by 4.4pc in the fiscal year 2021-22, against the target of 3.5pc and 3.4pc growth in the previous year. Still, people face shortages of food and its abnormally high prices. The only solution to the problems is that the government should focus on developing agriculture on modern lines and diversifying it to meet the growing needs of its people, whose number is increasing rapidly.

Undoubtedly, the previous government took a number of steps to boost the agriculture sector and benefit farmers. However, the common people have not reaped the benefits of “bumper” crops for many national and international reasons. Resent reports show the world would face a serious food crisis in the coming months, which could also affect Pakistan if a careful approach was not adopted. As Afghanistan is feared to face an acute food crisis, Pakistan will have to be vigilant to save itself from its fallout.

According to a United Nations report, the ripple effects of the Ukraine war have triggered price surges, particularly in areas characterized by rural marginalization and fragile agrifood systems. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) have called for urgent humanitarian action to save lives and livelihoods and prevent famine in the 20 ‘hunger hotspots’ where acute need is expected to rise, from now until September. According to the joint report entitled Hunger Hotspots – FAO-WFP early warnings on acute food insecurity, amidst multiple looming food crises – prompted by conflict, climate shocks, COVID-19 fallout, massive public debt burdens and now the Ukraine war – conditions expected to be particularly acute where economic instability and spiralling prices have combined with climate-induced food production drops. “We are deeply concerned about the combined impacts of overlapping crises jeopardizing people’s ability to produce and access foods, pushing millions more into extreme levels of acute food insecurity,” warned FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.

Besides conflict, the report finds that frequent and recurring climate shocks continue to drive acute hunger and shows that we have entered a ‘new normal’ where droughts, flooding, hurricanes, and cyclones repeatedly decimate farming and livestock rearing, drive population displacement and push millions to the brink in countries across the world. “We’re facing a perfect storm that is not just going to hurt the poorest of the poor – it’s also going to overwhelm millions of families who until now have just about kept their heads above water,” warned WFP Executive Director David Beasley.

Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen remain at ‘highest alert’ as hotspots with catastrophic conditions, and Afghanistan and Somalia are new entries to this worrisome category since the last hotspots report, released in January. These six countries all have parts of the population facing IPC phase 5 ‘Catastrophe’ levels, at risk of deterioration towards catastrophic conditions, with up to 750,000 people facing starvation and death. And 400,000 are in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region – the highest number on record in a single country, since the famine in Somalia in 2011. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti, the Sahel, Sudan and Syria are of ‘very high concern’, as in the previous edition of the report – with Kenya now added to the list. Angola, Lebanon, Madagascar, and Mozambique also remain hunger hotspots, with Sri Lanka, Benin, Cabo Verde, Zimbabwe, Guinea, and Ukraine, now added. “Conditions now are much worse than during the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2007-2008 food price crisis, when 48 countries were rocked by political unrest, riots and protests,” warned the WFP chief.

It is good to note the report provides concrete country-specific recommendations for immediate humanitarian assistance to save lives, prevent famine and protect livelihoods. Against the backdrop of a recent G7 commitment to strengthen anticipatory action in humanitarian and development assistance – preventing predictable hazards from becoming full-blown humanitarian disasters, FAO and WFP have partnered to ramp up pre-emptive measures. In the critical window between an early warning and a shock, the UN agencies advocate for flexible humanitarian funding to better anticipate needs and protect communities. Evidence shows that for every $1 invested in anticipatory action to safeguard lives and livelihoods, up to $7 can be saved by avoiding losses for disaster-affected communities, according to the report.

Though the food situation is not that alarming in Pakistan, developing and diversifying its agriculture should be the focus of every government in future. It is encouraging to note that Pakistan’s agriculture sector recorded a robust growth of 4.4pc in the fiscal year 2021-22, but wheat production was not impressive. According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan, all other crops have shown impressive growth. Shortages of some key crops show that farmers still face hurdles to access the market. Besides, provincial and federal governments have failed to curtail the role of the middleman. The survey says the growth was mainly driven by high yields, attractive output prices, supportive government policies, better availability of certified seeds, pesticides and agricultural credit. Cotton has increased from 7.1 million bales last year to 8.3 million bales during 2021-22, while rice production increased from 8.4 million tonnes to 9.3 million tonnes. Sugarcane production jumped from 81 million tonnes to 88.7 million tonnes whereas maize production rose from 8.9 million tonnes to 10.6 million tonnes. However, wheat production decreased from 27.5 million tonnes to 26.4 million tonnes. The government aims to import 3 million tonnes of wheat to avert any crisis in future.

The government has allocated Rs21 billion in the new budget to increase crop yields and uplift the livestock sector. Its three-year growth strategy aims to enhance production, increase farmers’ income, counter the negative effects of climate change, and promote smart agriculture, self-sufficiency, value addition and agro-processing. An amount of Rs11 billion has been allocated to modernise the agriculture sector, increase the use of machinery for laser levelling of land, modernise the irrigation system, provide quality seeds and promote the export of agricultural products. The government has also withdrawn the sales tax on the supply of tractors, agricultural implements and seed of wheat, rice, maize, sunflower, canola and rice.

The international and national food situation demands Pakistan to remain focused on increasing and diversifying its agricultural produce to save its people from food supply chain shocks and high prices.

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