No ray of hope for sunflower

Updated March 26, 2018

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A SUNFLOWER field in Thatta district.—Photo by author
A SUNFLOWER field in Thatta district.—Photo by author

THE cultivation of sunflower, one of the best alternatives to wheat crop during winter (October to February), has been in decline in Sindh of late, mainly because of lower yields and higher seed prices.

Sunflower production in Sindh, whose coastal belt is considered best for the crop, peaked to nearly 350,000 tonnes in the 2010-11 fiscal year. It dropped to a mere 69,305 tonnes in the previous fiscal year.

Similarly, the area under sunflower cultivation has shrunk to nearly 166,000 acres from around 660,000 acres during the seven-year period.

Punjab has also seen its sunflower production decline over the years. This year, the provincial government has linked the cultivation of oilseed crops of canola and sunflower with subsidy and support price.

The province has launched a two-prong programme this season for farmers under the slogan of gandum khanay kay liye aur oilseed munfay kay liye (wheat for consumption and oilseed for income) to attract them towards oilseed crops. It promised a subsidy of Rs5,000 per acre for sunflower cultivation and a price of Rs2,500 per 40kg in case market prices fall below this benchmark.

Sunflower production in Sindh has dropped from a peak of nearly 350,000 tonnes in 2010-11 to a mere 69,305 tonnes in the previous fiscal year

But policymakers in Sindh have yet to take notice of a persistent decline in the province’s sunflower production. Initial reports from coastal areas indicate that acreage in Thatta has dropped during this season as well.

Sunflower is an exhaustive crop and gets massive nutrients from soil, thus requiring considerable investment in inputs, says a researcher from Islamabad.

Such investment has to obviously increase farmers’ cost of production. This is where the government has to step in and support farmers with an incentives-based programme. For this to happen, the government could curtail its oil import bill to ensure indigenous oilseed production, he says.

Meanwhile, the country’s solvent industry is thriving by importing edible oil, chiefly palm oil, worth more than $2.5 billion a year.

The downfall of sunflower cultivation started after super floods in 2010, in which one-fourth of the country was devastated by floods. In Sindh, two back-to-back massive breaches were reported in August 2010 — one at the Tori dyke downstream Guddu barrage and the other at Kot Almo embankment downstream Kotri barrage in Thatta.

Besides, the crop has lost its charm for growers amid low productivity and higher input prices.

“Sunflower is not giving required per-acre productivity these days,” says Nadeem Shah, who has been cultivating the crop for the last 15 years. “Moreover, market prices remain lower to make matters worse for us.” Mr Shah has now reduced the area under sunflower cultivation to 40 acres from 200 a few years ago.

Sindh Abadgar Board Vice President Mahmood Nawaz Shah believes that the provincial government should look at ways to increase sunflower cultivation, as it will help it reduce the costs of keeping wheat stocks.

Moreover, researchers should try to find out why the per-acre yield has now plummeted to nearly 400kg from of up to 1,000kg, he says. “Hybrid-seed suppliers tell us there are no issues with seed’s quality. But why we continue to get complaints of lower yields?”

The Sindh Agriculture Research department has recently provided a local variety of sunflower open pollinated (OP) seed to some growers, including Nadeem Shah. His crop is at the flowering stage at present and he anticipates higher yields this time around.

He has sown this seed on 13 acres in Sujawal on a trial basis, and hopes that the OP seed will suit local climatic conditions as compared to the imported hybrid seed which he believes is expensive.

Growers cultivate sunflower on residual moisture in land after paddy is harvested. To compare, land that didn’t get water for any reason after sunflower is sown produces 320kg an acre as compared to 640kg per acre from a land which got one cycle of water.

According to Nadeem Shah’s assessment, a market price of Rs2,500 per 40kg and a yield of 600kg per acre can help growers and peasants earn Rs10,000 per acre.

Mohammad Ibrahim Mughal, chief of Punjab-based Pakistan Agri Forum, believes that Pakistan must focus on oilseed production, especially to overcome a staggering Rs300bn edible oil import bill. He says the government must double import duty on edible oil to force the solvent industry to encourage growers to cultivate oilseed crops with some incentives.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 26th, 2018