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Pulses output misses a beat

July 17, 2017

EVERY year we have to spend a lot of foreign exchange to import pulses as the gap between output and consumption keeps widening.

Except for gram pulse, whose production more or less meets our requirements, major pulses such as mung, maash and masoor have to be imported every year for household and commercial consumption by the food industry.

In Ramazan, however, even gram pulse sometimes needs to be imported if its production fails to match the skyrocketing demand during the month, traders say.

The import bill of pulses and leguminous vegetables shot up more than 70 per cent year-on-year to $902m in the first 11 months (July to May) of the previous fiscal year, according to official data.

This much spending, and that too at a time of forex crunch in the country, is just too big. It’s more than five times higher than the exports of vegetables which totalled $176m during the same period.

Though the actual import spending on pulses and bean could be lower since the term ‘leguminous vegetables’ also includes alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, lentils, soya and peanuts, a 70pc increase in imports is enough to suggest how the low output of pulses is taking its toll on forex spending.

Growers say the problems related to minor crops remain unheard because they are grown mostly by small farmers

Moreover, higher import price has only partly been responsible for this rise in the import bill as the quantity of imports also jumped 44pc to 1.17m tonnes during the period.

The output of all pulse crops including gram, mung, maash, masoor and others has remained stagnant at around one million tonnes for the last two decades, officials of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research say. Yearly fluctuations are also wide. In some years the output rises close to a million tonnes (such as in the fiscal year 2007-08) and in some years it falls to a little over half a million tonnes (like in the last two fiscal years).

There are several reasons for this. First, the area under cultivation of pulses has been shrinking due to a lack of support for growers of minor food crops and they keep switching over to major food or fodder crops or move to animal breeding, growers say.

For the past four years, the total area under cultivation of pulses’ crops, including gram, has averaged out at around 1.15m hectares as compared to 1.25m hectares in the financial year 2012-13.

Secondly, the yield of minor crops remains low because authorities don’t give much importance to research on productivity of pulses, beans or other minor crops. For example, Pakistan’s national average per-hectare yield of gram (chickpea) is slightly over 400 kilograms compared to 800kg in the two main chickpea-producing states of India, i.e. Maharashtra and Rajasthan. In some regions of Australia, the yield ranges between 1,500kg and 2,000kg.

Besides, a general lack of the agriculture co-operatives culture in Pakistan makes it too difficult for individual, small growers to get enough returns on minor crops by achieving economy of scale and by streamlining the broken marketing value-chain.

In April, the federal government announced that it would launch a Rs2bn plan to boost pulses’ production. However, growers in Sindh and Punjab say there has been no progress so far. “We were expecting something (in this regard) in this year’s budget, but nothing came out,” an official of the Sindh Abadgar Board said.

Recently, a research programme has been launched to boost yield of pulses and to reduce their post-harvest losses with the help of a $2.3m Australian fund. Officials say the five-year research programme, being carried out in all the four provinces, is being supervised by the Graham Centre for Agriculture Research at Charles Sturt University of Australia.

Several other research programmes are under way to boost the yield of pulses, mostly in Punjab, officials say. Moreover, the national food security policy that is currently being finalised is also expected to provide important policy guidelines to increase focus on minor food crops and pulses.

Growers, however, say no new high-yielding variety of seeds of pulse crops has been released for commercial use in the last seven years. A new variety of chickpea — Punjab Noor — was released in 2009; two new varieties of masoor — Markaz-09 and Punjab Masoor — were released in the same year; and Dera Mung, a high-yield variety of mung, was introduced in 2008.

They say the problems related to these crops remain unheard because pulses and other minor crops are grown mostly by small farmers.

“Cotton, wheat, rice and sugarcane crops are cultivated on large pieces of land owned by big landlords who are either themselves sitting in the government or have strong connections in policy-making circles,” says an official of Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (farmers’ alliance). “That’s why their issues get resolved and policies are framed to benefit them.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 17th, 2017