AS sunflower sowing starts in Punjab, the situation appears grim for the crop. It has lost almost 65pc of area to other competitive crops, coming down from 242,000 acres in 2009 to 86,500 acres in 2016.
The drop occurred when officials planned to double the area during the same period from 242,000 acres to 480,000 acres. The sunflower acreage lost, has gone to wheat and maize, and, to a lesser extent, sugarcane.
The official plan of doubling the acreage in Punjab was aimed at controlling swelling edible oil import bill, which in the first nine months of last year, had crossed $1.37bn. In the entire 2015 the total bill was $1.93bn.
Another unintended effect, which may carry even bigger and long-term social and economic cost, is farmers’ heavy dependence on wheat and maize for making some profits, and turning Pakistan’s agriculture into two crop exercise. Unfortunately, these are the only two crops, which are yielding some profit to the growers (wheat being a staple and enjoying official support price and maize because of high-yielding hybrid varieties and efficient industry).
Punjab has now been asking the federal government to take other federating units on board and spare areas for oil producing crops
In fact, wheat production and its stuck-up stocks both at federal and provincial levels are already testing official financial and administrative capacity.
The edible oil producing crops (mustard and sunflower) suffer from official neglect. Though running a pulses promotion programme, Punjab has almost conceded to the market forces which are dictating crop pricing. The province has now been asking the federal government to take other federating units on board and spare areas for oil producing crops because it cannot produce them at the nationally required level. Its plans for the oil producing crops have also gone awry, as shown by the exceptional drop in sunflower crop.
All these crops have huge unresolved marketing issues. The farmers have been sowing sunflower on soils either left over by wheat or in water-stressed areas. Now they are abandoning even that practice. The pulses’ price, which doubled, even tripled in the last few years proves the point for pulses and drop in acreage for sunflower.
This situation calls for an integrated approach, which could ensure return on the crop for farmers and also add to yield and also absorb changes in weather.
For fiscal returns, a fair price is needed. In 2009, the then Federal Minister for Agriculture Nazar Mohammad Gondal announced support price of Rs1,600 per 40kg. In 2015, when the cost of production had almost tripled, the sunflower was traded at an average price of Rs1,500 per 40kg. This hardly augured well for the crop economics.
Apart from the declining prices, there has also been no breakthrough in technology. With climate change affecting the crop (like February rains last year), the yield plummeted.
Most of the farmers, who used to harvest around 20 maunds per acre which has dropped down 10 to 15 maunds per acre.
The farmers claim that unless price of sunflower sustains a level of double the price of wheat (at around Rs2,500 per 40kg) and yield go up to over 20 maunds per acre, the crop would not make commercial sense for them. The federal government never bothered to support price of the crop after 2009, defeating official efforts at reducing oil import bill and, diversifying crops.
Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, February 8th, 2016