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Wheat: temporary glut or overproduction?

Updated November 19, 2018

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With the country reeling under the massive financial and administrative cost of carryover wheat stocks — currently close to nine million tonnes — for the last few years, policymakers are coming under pressure to divert a part of the area under wheat cultivation to other crops like pulses, canola and sunflower to diversify the crop sector and help reduce the burgeoning edible oil import bill.

Apparently, this makes sense. The federal government plans to spare half a million acres currently under wheat cultivation for others crops. In fact, the plan is already underway: the Federal Committee on Agriculture (FCA) kept the national production target of 25.5m tonnes, unchanged from last year, but reduced the area under cultivation to 8.83m hectares from 8.98m hectares a year ago.

The FCA is the body that fixes national production targets and assigns areas to the provinces.

Punjab launched a campaign, wheat for food and canola for profit, last year and lost 2pc of area: 16.21m acres in 2017-18 against 16.45m acres in 2016-17. However, it lost 4pc production — from 20.46m tonnes in 2016-17 to 19.17m tonnes in 2017-18 — because of multiple factors.

In response to a temporary glut created by a wrong set of policies rather than overproduction, the federation and Punjab, which has an 80 per cent share in agricultural products, look to be on the same page vis-à-vis reduction in the area under wheat cultivation.

The commodity may be in abundance today, but climate change can wipe out the minor surplus within a year

However, one can deliver a word of caution in this policy rush hour. The crop, which meets 80pc of national dietary and 38pc caloric intake, is too important to suffer a policy reversal due to the temporary mismanagement of stocks. As a matter of theory, the area under any crop can be adjusted any time if some prerequisites are in place. The federation and the provinces need to look at those requirements first and then go for area adjustment.

In order to compensate for the reduction in area, the federal government promises an increase in production by seven maunds per acre in the next few years. How? No one knows! At the current level of production, which is around 25m tonnes, Pakistan is left with hardly any surplus if 120 kilograms per capita for 207m people, 1m tonnes for seed requirements and 1m tonnes for strategic reserves are taken into consideration. Given climate change, even this minor surplus could be wiped out within a year, plunging Pakistan back into deficits.

Its requirement is also increasing by the year. If the population increase of 1.8pc (unofficially it may be higher) is taken into consideration, the wheat requirement goes up by half a million tonnes every year. This takes the total demand to over 30m tonnes by 2025.

In order to meet this requirement, the country has to increase either the area or the per-unit production. Since area supply is fixed, an increase in production remains the only option. Right now, Pakistan is producing wheat at a rate of 2.89 tonnes per hectare. It has to be taken to more than 3.2 tonnes per hectare by 2025 if food security is to be ensured. If the country wants to take around half a million acres out of wheat cultivation for diversification in the next five years, a further increase in the per-unit production will be required accordingly.

The drivers of wheat production are in deep disarray. Currently, there are around 152 wheat varieties in the market. In the last 10 years alone, Punjab has released 69 varieties, Sindh 25, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 44. Balochistan has released eight varieties and the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) came up with six varieties. None of these varieties has been able to gain any acceptability. Most of them disappeared within three to four years of their introduction because none of them met the standard.

For the last many years, Pakistan has been losing out on seed development. Instead, it has been caught up in the seed selection exercise: randomly selecting a better performing seed from dozens of imported ones instead of cross-matching strong characteristics of many of them to develop a seed according to its own ecological requirements. This has left the seed and crop sectors grossly compromised.

The seed replacement hardly merits any discussion: official agencies boast of 38pc certified seed availability whereas hardly 5pc seed is actually being replaced. Punjab has been running a programme for seed replacement for the last four years and providing 100,000 bags to farmers for free. This year, even that plan was scrapped.

All kinds of fertilisers have also experienced a 20-40pc increase in prices following the hike in feed gas rates. With their prices spinning out of the farmers’ reach, general fertiliser application is bound to suffer and so is wheat production. However, the long-term issue is of soil health as farmers lose interest in balancing fertiliser according to soil and crop health.

The availability of water is declining like never before. For the last few seasons, its shortages hovered between 20pc and 60pc during crop cycles.

Wheat area diversification is a politically catchy slogan, but it may not actually work.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 19th, 2018

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