NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 41

Urgent imperatives for Pakistan’s agriculture sector

Amidst the continuous disputes within the political factions and influential circles of the nation, successive administrations have unfortunately disregarded the crucial importance of the agriculture sector, which undeniably serves as the bedrock of Pakistan’s economy. The ramifications are clear: the country now grapples with a multitude of crises, including surging food inflation, declining exports, and even the looming specter of default.

Ahmad Jawad, the former chairman of the agriculture standing committee at the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, laments that misguided priorities of consecutive governments have plunged the country into multifaceted crises. Despite the nation’s attempts to explore various strategies such as rapid industrialization and private sector investment in services, these endeavors have all met with failure thus far. Jawad emphasizes that policymakers must recognize that a thriving agriculture sector alone holds the key to ensuring a prosperous future for the nation.

Jawad expresses regret over the inadequacy of budget allocation for the agriculture sector. Additionally, he points out a concerning shift where fertile lands are being converted into housing developments. This transformation has rendered the agriculture sector the weakest link in current macroeconomic plans and strategies. Challenges like locust invasions, weak governance, faulty planning, climate change, and insufficient investment in seed technology and agricultural research have already resulted in shortages of vital crops like wheat, sugar, and cotton. Furthermore, the record-low cotton production is set to lead to a substantially high cotton import bill, as conveyed during his conversation with the author.

The consensus is clear that Pakistan’s agricultural performance has, for the most part, been lackluster. The growth rate has averaged between 2-3% over the past decades, falling short of the required 4-5% growth needed to achieve broader economic objectives. Crop and livestock yields lag behind those of comparable nations. The output of critical products falls short of domestic demands, necessitating imports, while export potential remains largely untapped.

Daud Khan, a retired UN staff member, attributes Pakistan’s agricultural underperformance to the glaring disparity in resource access, particularly the highly skewed land ownership distribution. A mere 2% of farmers own a substantial 45% of all agricultural land, leaving the remaining 55% for the remaining 98%. The agricultural landscape is predominantly shaped by 7.4 million smallholders who cultivate less than 12.5 acres each. This unequal land distribution directly translates to imbalances in power, access to government services, and resources like water, credit, and technology. Larger farmers disproportionately benefit from irrigation water, often overusing or squandering it, whereas smallholders, especially those at the end of irrigation channels, receive limited and unreliable water access.

The economist laments that public services, including animal health, are mainly directed toward large farmers and commercial dairy enterprises, while small livestock holders must “incentivize” government animal health workers to tend to their sick animals. Government subsidies primarily favor large farmers, and credit predominantly flows to prominent landlords, commercial livestock enterprises, and processing units. These disparities not only contribute to overall underperformance but also result in elevated levels of rural poverty, profoundly affecting a significant portion of the population. With the added challenge of climate change, the situation could deteriorate rapidly.

Daud Khan observes that successive governments have consistently displayed a stubborn inclination to disregard agricultural policy documents crafted by donors and think tanks. This reluctance often stems from influential interest groups that have formed around distorted policies. However, the expert underscores the necessity for a change in this trend. Emphasizing that agricultural development, particularly in the realm of smallholder farming, is the sole path toward achieving national development objectives, Khan insists that the government must allocate considerable attention not only to reform agendas but also to the meticulous design and, most importantly, the effective implementation of projects and programs.

Recently, the agricultural sector has encountered the formidable challenge of climate change. As the climate crisis intensifies, Pakistan faces the looming specter of increased floods, droughts, and escalating water scarcity. Addressing the diverse array of threats posed by climate-induced disasters cannot be resolved through a singular technological solution. Rather, adaptation demands the pursuit of an array of strategies. While certain strategies require immediate adoption, others necessitate a longer incubation period.

Syed Mohammad Ali, an academic and researcher, proposes that Pakistan should transition toward cultivating high-yielding and drought-and-heat-resistant crops that are tailor-suited to the diverse agro-ecological zones within the nation. Technological techniques such as laser-assisted land leveling hold the potential to optimize water usage, while solar-powered irrigation systems could mitigate air pollution and emissions. However, the implementation of these measures must be inclusive of impoverished farmers, as sidelining them would exacerbate rural inequalities, intensify the decline of farming communities, and augment the strain on already burgeoning urban centers.

Throughout this process, the role of both federal and provincial governments is pivotal. It is imperative to engender a more progressive and accessible agricultural policy landscape in the country. Alongside ensuring equitable wages for landless agricultural laborers, there is a pressing need to formulate subsidy frameworks and other incentives that center on active involvement of smaller farmers in enhancing the productivity, resilience, and sustainability of agriculture. Neglecting to take timely corrective actions could propel the sector toward irreversible and irreparable destruction.