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No walls on our borders

April 22, 2019


DESPITE being an agri-based economy, with an import bill of $6 billion in 2018, Pakistan is hardly food sufficient.

Though we produce enough rice, dates, wheat, and potatoes for our needs, staples such as edible oil — used to make ghee — and pulses are imported. And what is grown within the country is not protected from imported pests.

The composition of food imports as a percentage of total imports has averaged at 11 per cent since 2003, with edible oils taking the lion’s share, according to Trade Map data. While in absolute terms, edible oil imports, mostly palm oil, has increased over the years, its share has declined from 53pc to 36pc over a decade and a half.

The decrease in share of edible oil as a percentage of overall imports is in part because of an increase in oilseeds, namely soybeans. Most oilseeds are mainly crushed for oil, however soybean seeds are crushed for protein and used in poultry feed.

Increase in soybean imports actually contributes towards food security, says Shakil Ashfaq, chairman of the All Pakistan Seed Extractors Association and CEO of Shujabad Agro.

While countries have advanced systems to detect food items entering their borders, in Pakistan there is no checking, especially at points such as Torkham and Chamman

Soybean formulation of poultry feed was introduced by Charoen Pokphand Group, a Thai company, in 2013. Incorporating soybean in poultry diet has decreased their Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR).

The FCR indicates the amount of feed that needs to be given to get one kilogram of meat. Typically, the FCR in Pakistan used to be 2.5kg but with the introduction of soybean it has been reduced to 1.6kg because of which the cost of poultry has come down. Simply put, more nutrition is now packed in a small amount of feed.

While soybean imports may be good news, the volumetric rise in palm oil imports is not. The key ingredient in making vegetable ghee is palm oil. Palm oil is also the preferred choice in the confectionary, baking and frying industries.

An increasing population and the rise of the fast food culture and snack industry has increased the consumption of palm oil and made it a staple of the country’s import bill.

At 2.96 million tonnes, as per Trade Map data, 2018 saw the highest quantum of palm oil import to date. Import substitution in the form of cultivation of oilseeds leaves a lot to be desired.

Over the last decade, area under oilseed has decreased from 8.47m hectares to 7.6m hectares despite the country’s growing population, and hence, need for edible oil.

Other than edible oil, oilseeds, and tea, pulses are a top food import. Though we grow a variety of pulses, including gram, lentil, moong bean, mash, red gram, and cowpea, production is not enough to satisfy domestic demand. At nearly a billion dollars, 2017 saw the highest import of pulses in the country’s history.

Import dependency aside, lack of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards for food imports opens a whole different can of worms.

A senior official of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research lamented the lack of agri-protection from pests, including insects, diseases, bacteria, and viruses.

“Around 60-65pc of pests that infect our crops are imported because we do not have regulatory checks or a holistic set of SPS standards,” he said.

Due to insects and disease, production decreases while production costs increase. In 2012, Pakistan consumed pesticides in the range of Rs25-30bn. Today this number has increased to stand at Rs75bn.

The official indicated that the existence of infections and pests in our crops prevents access to high value markets.

He narrated the example of dirt accompanying potato seeds imported from Holland that was infected with Golden Nematode. This is one of the world’s most damaging potato pest and can remain present, dormant in the soil, for up to 30 years. As a result of this infection, Russia stopped importing all agri-products from Pakistan for a while.

Another example he narrated was of the weed Parthenium that was imported through food substance from Australia. This weed is not only capable of destroying 60-80pc of the country’s crop but can also prove to be deadly to cattle.

While countries have advanced systems to detect food items entering their borders, in Pakistan there is no checking, especially at points such as the Torkham and Chamman border. Not only is the country vulnerable due to import dependency of certain staples, its lack of biosecurity is a threat to domestic cultivation as well.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 22nd, 2019