Pakistan’s wheat output is going to fall this year.

The Federal Committee on Agriculture (FCA) expects the output to be 25.16 million tonnes against the target of 25.51m tonnes. But the FCA estimate is old (April 7). The actual production could be less than that.

Rains and floods in Punjab continued after that day and their impact on the crop is yet to be decisively accounted for. The wide-scale damage to some varieties of wheat due to the windstorm and hailstorm in parts of the province, including Chakwal, Mianwali, Attock and Bhakkar, will also cause additional loss to the crop, media reports suggest.

Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research Sahibzada Mahboob Sultan says the government is assessing and re-assessing the losses to the crop. By the time this write-up is published, the government will hopefully be able to quantify the total loss.

Instant causes for a crop failure immediately come to light. They are debated intensely in the media and policymaking circles. But the root causes are often ignored. When they draw enough attention, we hear promises of addressing them once and for all. If the government is new, the promises are louder. But things return to normal as promises are broken. That is how the country’s agriculture has been treated, by and large, for decades.

Environmental and climatic changes are causing abrupt rains and floods. They are bound to impact our agriculture. What has Pakistan done so far to fully grasp the nature of these changes and their impact? Have we sensitised our farmers on a vast scale?

Crop failure in Punjab, mismanagement in wheat procurement in Sindh and damages to carryover stocks stored at dilapidated facilities paint an unenviable picture of how our agriculture sector is operating

Do we have today effective and greater liaison between the federal and provincial agencies and departments dealing with environmental issues and agriculture? What percentage of our farmers uses smart phones? What phone applications do we have to enable them to get quicker access to weather forecasts?

Have we equipped our weather forecasters well enough to improve the quality of their predictions? The list of such questions goes on and on. But the answers to them leave a lot to be desired. Some of these issues, however, came up at a mid-April meeting in the Ministry of National Food Security and Research, but in casual reference or in exchange of blames.

The sowing of wheat is often delayed due to the late harvesting of sugar cane. Losses to the wheat crop due to heavy rains and floods in April are sure to remain high in such areas. That brings to the fore the issues related to the cane crop. The late reaping of this crop could be to ensure the highest sucrose contents. Or it could also be due to the delayed sowing in the wake of a late decision on support price.

More often, we see delays when a traditional tiff between sugar millers and cane growers turns uglier. Who doesn’t know that wheat and sugar cane crops are under immense influence of our politicians, some of whom are regularly accused manipulating things to their end? Problems are complex; solutions have to be wholesome.

The quality of wheat seed varieties is also important in determining the extent of crop losses — in the case of rains, not floods. Developing rain-resistant seed varieties and promoting their use among farmers can minimise the damage. That opens up a painful debate on whether we allocate enough funds for research and development? Do we actually use the bulk of those funds to meet core objectives? Obviously, the answer is no or very little.

Rains and floods also damage a large part of the wheat stocks of the previous crop stored improperly by farmers and even at the Pakistan Agricultural Storage and Services Corporation (Passco) warehouses that lack modern facilities. At least those stocks could be saved from heavy rains and, to some extent, floods as well. That can ensure the availability of enough wheat. The FCA’s meeting on April 7 had estimated 3m tonnes of carryover stocks. Authorities may soon get a reality check once they get the final estimate of damages caused by rains and floods.

In our case, the availability of wheat for domestic consumption is not an issue. Even after accounting for the possible damage to the standing crop as well as to the carryover stocks, we will still be able to continue exports. The problem is: we will have smaller wheat stocks for exports next year. That means smaller foreign exchange earnings amidst a foreign exchange crisis.

In the first nine months of this fiscal year, Pakistan has exported about 558,000 tonnes of wheat, up more than 80 per cent from 307,000 tonnes a year ago. Export earnings, too, have risen to $122m from around $60m. To sustain this rising trend in the next fiscal year, it is not just enough to maintain the exportable surplus volumes. Equally important is maintaining the health of wheat grains. When rains and floods dampen the wheat stored at storage centres lacking fumigation and temperature maintenance facilities, large stocks go to waste or are dumped into markets for the use of the animal feed industry. We have seen that happening in the recent past.

In Sindh, the wheat crop has reportedly done well despite water shortages. But the problem is that the provincial food department is delaying wheat purchases for a paucity of funds to buy gunny bags for the purpose. Lack of storage facilities — limited to 700,000-750,000 tonnes, according to the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture — and a delay in official procurement are forcing farmers to sell the produce at less than market rates to cover expenses. Such experiences lead to crop switching in the next year.

Crop failure in Punjab, mismanagement in wheat procurement in Sindh and damages to carryover stocks maintained at dilapidated facilities paint an unenviable picture of how our agriculture sector is operating.

Major crops constitute an important part of agriculture, but issues persist in production, procurement, storage and management of the exportable surplus, affecting the entire economy. The resolution of all issues pertaining to major crops — or, for that matter, the entire agriculture sector — not only requires better policymaking but also effective implementation. Their resolution requires a strong political will at the federal as well as provincial levels. Sadly, that seems missing under the current politically charged environment. —MA

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 29th, 2019

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