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ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will need to build up the resilience of its agricultural sector over the next several decades, with greater investment in agricultural research and extension to maintain and increase yields and build tolerance to pests, diseases and disasters, a report on Pakistan’s agriculture and rural economy notes.

The report, published by Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, stressed that improved organisational structures and incentives for researchers and extension agents could help reinvigorate Pakistan’s agricultural science and technology system.

Better regulation of seed markets and stronger incentives to encourage private investment in research and development could also speed dissemination of improved cultivars, hybrids, transgenics, and other products. These improved products could variously increase yields or the value of crops to consumers or could reduce yield variability, losses to biotic and abiotic stress, or costs of production, the report says.

The report points out that long-term climate change and short-term weather shocks loom large in Pakistan, particularly due to semi-arid climate in much of the country and heavy reliance of the agricultural sector on irrigation.

The Indus River Basin system is in need of major investments in water storage and distribution, including canal rehabilitation and maintenance. Substantially greater investments in water storage, surface irrigation, drainage, and improvements in the efficiency of water use will be required over the next few decades to maintain the availability of water, minimise the devastation of major flood events, and increase the returns to water use.

The report suggests that funding for public expenditures on agricultural and rural economy can be found by significantly reducing expenditures on domestic procurement, storage, and distribution of wheat, which accounted for Rs24.84 billion in 2012-13.

Substantial savings could be achieved by reducing the level of annual domestic procurement, eliminating the subsidy on sales of government wheat to flour mills, reducing the level of government stocks, and planning for subsidies on wheat imports in the event of domestic shortfalls in years of very high international prices.

Similar funds could be found by significantly reducing the subsidies received by the fertiliser industry and reallocating those resources into research and extension efforts designed to improve soil fertility management, it says.

Suggesting improvement in market performance, the report says that regulations that govern the supply of commodities to market can be reformed to reduce both the direct costs of marketing agricultural products and the transaction costs for both farmers and consumers associated with participating in markets.

More successes on this scale would go a long way to improving the efficiency and agricultural value chains in Pakistan.

In its conclusion, the report says that Pakistan’s agricultural sector has enormous potential, but tapping this potential will require higher levels of investment and some major reforms to public policy. Agriculture needs to be strengthened against threats such as climate change and pests, and agricultural products must be marketed more effectively, particularly to urban areas.

Efforts to increase basic security, expand social services, and promote gender equity also have an important role to play in the country’s development. These policies and investments can enable Pakistan not only to boost overall economic growth but also to enhance food security at the national and household levels and significantly improve the welfare of the poor, it says.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2017