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Why we should invest in agriculture

Updated February 11, 2019

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Agriculture is the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy. It contributes 18.9 per cent to the GDP and employs 42.3pc of the labour force. The rural economy heavily depends on this sector.

The sub-sectors of agriculture, which include minor crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry, have the potential to increase farmers’ earnings by ensuring the export of surplus stocks to neighbouring markets.

The demand for food in the international market is also increasing. This means farmers have an opportunity to make the economy vibrant by seizing international markets.

The world’s population is 7.7 billion. It is expected to be more than 9bn by 2050. From 207 million, Pakistan’s population is expected to increase to around 300m by 2050. In addition, the growing trend of urbanisation will continue at an accelerated pace, soon reaching 70pc of the world’s population.

As per the 1981 census, 28pc of Pakistan’s population was urban. But its share soared to almost 37pc in 2017. For the last couple of decades, Sindh has been one of the most urbanised provinces of Pakistan. Its urban population was 52pc as per the last census while those of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan were 37pc, 19pc and 28pc, respectively.

If the pace of urbanisation remains constant, the food producer will turn into the food consumer, causing a huge decline in agricultural production and an increase in the country’s dependency on imported food.

Data shows Pakistan’s food imports are rising. In 2012-13, food exports were $4.76bn while food imports amounted to $4.19bn. This meant a food trade balance of $570m. But in 2016-17, food exports were $3.71bn against food imports of $6.14bn. In July-December 2018, foreign sales of food items declined to $1.93bn as opposed to the food imports of $3.24bn.

Unfortunately, many educated people believe that agriculture is old-fashioned. What they fail to understand is that agriculture-related businesses have a greater trickle-down effect and create more employment opportunities

Major imported food items are palm oil, soybean oil, tea, powdered milk, spices, dried fruits, soft drinks, flavoured water, juices, chocolate, biscuits and cheese. Pakistan now imports many food items that it once used to export, such as beef, mutton, chicken and eggs. In addition, Pakistan imports fruits and vegetables. These imported items are worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

It is tragic that local farmers are burning their crops because of low market rates.

Despite an abundance of agricultural and natural resources, the country is not meeting the demand for food items. This is intensifying food security challenges.

The demand for food is expected to rise in the international market. For instance, in 2016-17, 2.68bn tonnes of grain were produced worldwide. By 2050, additional 1.5bn tonnes will be required to feed the world’s growing population. Simultaneously, meat production will increase from 200m tonnes to 500m tonnes.

Unfortunately, many educated young people believe that agriculture is an old-fashioned business. What they fail to understand is that agriculture-related businesses have a greater trickle-down effect and create more employment opportunities. Young people should invest their energies, knowledge and skills to achieve higher productivity in agriculture.

No well-rounded agriculture policy was devised in the last 72 years. Only short-term measures were taken without any regard for their long-term effect.

Successive governments promised agriculture reforms, but did not take any concrete action to improve the sector’s performance.

Farmer organisations and alliances, which are expected to voice the concerns of growers, have been unable to do so. They are affiliated with the ruling political elites and protect the interests of a few individuals rather than the sector as a whole.

The market for cash crops is limited due to the absence of small industrial units. The government should encourage small industrial units to boost the rural agrarian economy.

The writer is a development professional

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 11th, 2019