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Footprints: Fields of gold?

Updated May 05, 2015


FARM workers harvesting the wheat crop in a field in Mirza Virkaan, a village near Sheikhupura. Unfavourable weather conditions in central Punjab have delayed wheat harvest and affected the size of the crop.—Tariq Mahmood / White Star
FARM workers harvesting the wheat crop in a field in Mirza Virkaan, a village near Sheikhupura. Unfavourable weather conditions in central Punjab have delayed wheat harvest and affected the size of the crop.—Tariq Mahmood / White Star

THE wheat stems glistened like gold in the warm afternoon sun. The crop was finally ready to harvest in Mirza Virkaan, a village near Sheikhupura. The unforeseen rain and hailstorm which hit most districts in central Punjab in March and early April have delayed wheat harvest for eight to 10 days this year.

“A late harvest is becoming a pattern for us,” mused Khalid Mahmood, a smallholder farmer from the village. “The changes in the weather pattern have pushed the harvest in this area back by five to 10 days. Who has ever prevailed against nature?” he told Dawn during a visit to the area last Tuesday.

Take a look: Wheat yield may drop in Lahore, Gujranwala divisions

In 2013, the crop in Punjab was delayed by 22 days to early May from mid-April.

The unfavourable weather has also affected the size of the crop. Although the wheat cob is normal in length, the grain is thinner than it was in the last harvest. “If I get lucky, I will reap 40 maunds from one field [of one acre],” said Mohammad Imran, another smallholder farmer from Shahpur, a village adjoining Mirza Virkaan.

Last year the average yield from his fields was more than 48 maunds per acre. “Even the use of extra fertilisers didn’t help increase the weight of the grain,” said Salamat Masih, a farmer in Chhapa village near Haran Minar who had sown wheat on two acres of rented land.

In Sheikhupura’s grain market, the dealers said that the wheat arrival was much slower than it was last year. “The cold weather lingering into the month of April has damaged the wheat both in terms of quantity and quality,” argued a grain dealer, who declined to give his name, while showing three different samples of grains.

Changes in the climate over the last several decades are having a heavy impact on agricultural productivity in Punjab and Sindh. “The weather patterns are getting erratic. It would likely cost Pakistan a 10 per cent productivity loss across all crops by 2040,” warned Farrukh Zaman of the World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan, who has co-authored a new study on the possible impact of changing climate on the country’s agriculture.

In rupee terms, farmers could lose Rs30,000 per acre owing to this productivity loss.

Punjab’s director general of agriculture extension services, Anjum Ali, concurs. “Climate change, manifesting itself in the form of droughts, rainfall variations, flooding and rising temperature, etc, is dictating agriculture across the regions,” he argued.

“We were expecting a good wheat harvest of 20 million tonnes in Punjab this year. But the weather factors have forced us to revise down the estimates to 19.2 million tonnes. Some are even talking about 18.5 million tonnes,” he said, adding that the grain in southern districts shrivelled because of a longer cold wave. “In central Punjab, the crop has been hit hard by an overdose of rain and hailstorm.”

According to Mr Ali, the estimates of the grams crop size had also been reduced to 365,000 tonnes this year from the initial estimate of half a million tonnes because of the unfavourable weather conditions in upper Punjab. “Climate change is a challenge that we must fight together. If we do not take immediate measures to offset its impact, it will jeopardise our food security.”

Experts say farmers could not do much to protect their crop even if they knew about the unusual rainfall, hailstorm and the cold wave lingering on for a longer period.

“Climate changes are difficult to predict. Therefore, the adaptation to these changes is also difficult,” noted Mr Zaman. “Since our farmers are unable to anticipate the changes in weather patterns, they cannot adjust to them in time and their productivity suffers.”

In order to decrease the impact of changes in the climate, he concluded, the government should incorporate adaptations in its extension programmes and train farmers to face new challenges.

Farmers from districts such as Sheikhupura, which form the paddy belt of the province, took a severe hit last summer when rice prices crashed suddenly. “We’d thought that wheat would somewhat make up for our losses. But that is not going to happen. It appears that the wheat prices are also headed towards a crash because of the government’s failure to start its procurement drive well in time,” said Mohammad Aslam, another farmer from Mirza Virkaan who grew wheat on five acres of land. “If I get lucky I will save Rs10,000 on each acre, and I’ll consider that a bonus for my family.”

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2015

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