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Issues in farm productivity

June 17, 2013

AMIDST high hopes, the PML-N government will present the Punjab budget today. With regard to agricultural sector, the province not only has to improve upon its past performance, but also fill the policy and fiscal space vacated by the federation.

One of the key issues is to upgrade dilapidated marketing infrastructure. Inefficient markets have failed everyone, deterring additional investment and crop diversification. They have neither been able to deal with gluts nor with shortages — both are essential parts of crop cycle. Domestic markets are not linked at global or local level, creating huge fluctuations within the country and rendering Pakistani products non-competitive in the foreign markets. Punjab has to link its existing laws to markets and improve market infrastructure.

The province also needs to re-prioritise the sector and set the policy direction. Punjab has reportedly asked the agricultural department, along with some others, to come up with five-year development plans. One hopes that the budget document reflects the planning, setting policy and fiscal framework for the entire term of the government in office rather than a run-of-the-mill income-expenditure statement.

The three other areas that need immediate attention include soil health, climate change, and confusion in the seed sector. Agriculture experts believe that unless the province is able to deal with these issues on a priority basis, its agricultural yields would, at best, remain stagnant, and at worst, keep sliding.

Of late, soil degradation has emerged as important issue that has reduced per acre yield to basics. Soil health issues are a result of two factors: exhaustive crops and heavy pumping of sub-soil water. The world has carefully crafted agriculture cycles of exhaustive and restorative crops. If one crop squeezes life out of soil, the following one helps restore mineral balance in the field. Pakistan is yet to learn this lesson. It is stuck in four-crop (cotton, wheat, sugarcane and rice) cycle, all of them hugely taxing the soil fertility. Farmers have seldom ventured into restorative crops since they feel there is little market for them.

To make the matter worse, with perennial water shortage increasing dependence on sub-soil water, heavy pumping out of ground has helped cumulate minerals on the surface. This is why, despite the best of official efforts, farmers’ agronomical practices and entire range of natural factors favouring a crop, the province has never been able to cross certain production lines. The stagnation in yields of all crops bears this argument. Punjab needs to come up with a comprehensive plan for land reclamation, backed by all available administrative, fiscal and political resources to restore health of its lands.

Similarly, climate change in the country is testing traditional limits of agriculture. In the first six months of the current calendar year, the country has seen two half-a-century-old records of temperature broken. In January mercury went below zero in most parts of plain and the last week of May saw it shooting close to 50 degree Celsius in regions where it never rose to that level. Monsoon downpour is also a threat if meteorological officials are to be believed.

These abnormal spikes have already cost the country close to 1.5 million tonnes of wheat this season. All the key efficiency factors were in the favour of wheat crop, but excessive rains in February and March alone beat them. If opinion of the weather pundits is something to go by, these abnormal weather changes are part of life now. Dealing with this factor would need whole new agriculture: new seeds, new technologies, new agronomical practices, and investment in all these areas.

The third major area into which the province must pour funds, resources and work out regulatory laws is the seed sector. Seeds of all major crops are either too old or too weak to perform and coupled with poor soil, the yield takes a nosedive. This needs new investment and efficient laws. The Seed Act and Intellectual Property Rights Bill are long overdue; rusting on official shelves. To make seed market work, Punjab needs to prepare new legal and financial frameworks.