Innovationg agriculture in Naya Pakistan

Published August 13, 2018
Illustration by Soonhal Khan
Illustration by Soonhal Khan

Pakistan has yet to exploit its full potential in agriculture as it is still far behind its peers in terms of farm productivity. It is time Pakistan developed a proper agricultural innovation policy to boost productivity and agro-based exports.

The newly elected Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government, committed to revolutionising the agriculture sector, can take the lead here.

In crops, we need to promote deep placement of fertilisers and popularise the use of farm management software. In vegetable cultivation, we need to promote tunnel farming and introduce the concept of high-roofed greenhouses. In the livestock sector, we need to set up as many dairy hubs as possible and adopt new animal feeding systems.

A new policy on agriculture should help bridge the yield gaps in all major and minor crops in the minimum possible time and economise the use of water and arable land for agriculture

Besides, in each of these areas, smarter use of mobile apps has become the order of the day. Doing these things will be easy under a proper policy on agricultural innovation.

We had a countrywide agricultural innovation programme in the last PML-N government. But that was a programme, not a policy. Managed by the Agricultural Research Council of Pakistan in collaboration with several international organisations, most notably the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the programme has been somewhat helpful in boosting farm productivity. But such innovation programmes cannot substitute for an innovation policy.

In 2012, the Ministry of Science and Technology rolled out the National Science and Technology Innovation Policy that had set the objectives for future innovation policies. It identified agriculture as an area that required an innovation policy thrust to ensure food security at home and to boost agro-based export earnings. An agricultural innovation policy should have been developed immediately afterwards but that did not happen.

Our national food policy designed towards the end of the PML-N government calls for innovating agriculture. But now is the time to develop an agricultural innovation policy, based on the premise provided in the national food policy, devised jointly by all provinces with active support from all stakeholders and the federal government.

The purpose of such a policy should be to bridge the yield gaps in all major and minor crops in the minimum possible time, economise the use of water and arable land for agriculture, enhance livestock productivity and sustainability, ensure fuller exploitation of horticulture, strike a balance between productivity boost and its short- and long-term environmental impact, and increase the per-unit value of agro-based exports.

Experts say and officials admit that the work should begin from developing technology-based system for gathering and collating data for each segment of agriculture. In particular, they emphasise the need for completing the much-needed animal census.

Once we have more reliable data, its analysis through big data management devices and techniques can be carried out along several lines of objectives. The results can be used for developing to-do lists for each segment of agriculture where innovation is needed.

For example, dairy hubs cannot be set up unless we exactly know the current district-wise population of the livestock. For deep placement of fertilisers, it is necessary to know in which districts crops suffer more due to a lack of fertilising agents, agriculture experts say.

They point out that even for carrying out surveys and conducting the animal census, seeking help from software and app developers is a must. We must adopt a real, wholesome approach if we want to come up with an agricultural innovation policy that works well.

The absence of a comprehensive policy on agricultural innovation continues to keep our efficiency levels low in different segments of agricultural activity. It is also not yielding full results even in areas where some investment is taking place.

For example, take the case of drip and sprinkle irrigation systems and combine harvesters. In various parts of Sindh and Punjab, sprinkle systems and machines have been in work for some time. Obviously, investment has been made and expenses incurred.

Whereas farmers are able to produce more, thanks to these systems and machines, their additional productivity is constantly being diluted due to the absence of innovative on-farm storage facilities, including portable metal silos.

This again highlights the need for gathering more information — in this case, a breakdown of agricultural machinery imports. In the last fiscal year, Pakistan spent a little over $124 million on such imports, up about five per cent from a year earlier. Do we know exactly what kind of agricultural machinery was imported? Or, for that matter, do we know how many kinds of agricultural machinery have come into use during the past one decade?

The answer is no. Provincial agricultural departments keep records of only eight types of basic agricultural machinery, namely tractors, tube-well pumps, threshers, sheller, combine harvesters, ordinary reapers, drills and spray machines. That’s it and that’s all. No consolidated data is available even on solar-powered water pumps now in vogue.

Pakistan is currently facing a foreign exchange crisis and boosting export earnings is one of the most sustainable ways of keeping our external account in shape. Innovation in agriculture can bring about some required structural shift in foreign trade account. The food trade deficit, for example, closed at $1.4 billion in the last fiscal year despite a big $1bn decline in it due to a rise in food exports. “Much larger export surpluses of grains, fruits, vegetables and seafood can become available if we move towards innovative crop raising, horticulture development and fishing,” says an official of the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan. “On the other hand, the per-unit export price of food export items can also increase with innovation in the food processing industry.”

In the livestock sector, lack of innovation in processing animal hides and skins keeps export earning far lower than their actual potential. “Prime-grade tanning of leather is seldom undertaken on a large scale, with the result that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on imports of high-end, value-added leather products such as world-branded handbags, shoes and leather articles meant for surgical and military use,” laments a member of the Pakistan Leather Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Narrow fiscal space available to the federal and provincial governments keeps research and development funds on agriculture low, corruption and mismanagement in officialdom further lowers it and the private sector investment does not come fast.

“There is a clear case for Pakistan to design a comprehensive agricultural innovation policy, assess the total investment required in its implementation for the next five years and begin searching for funds both locally and internationally,” suggests a senior planning official of the Sindh government. “Why can’t we ask our Chinese friends to help our agriculture modernise by providing us funds and technical expertise? Why should we continue to import better agricultural inputs from China and other foreign countries? Why not develop them locally?”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 13th, 2018

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