The potential for organic farming is huge, but it is not being tapped fully in the absence of adequate government support.

Growing demand for organic vegetables has encouraged urban entrepreneurs to join hands with farmers and help them market their produce. These entrepreneurs are now penetrating into the niche market, but the overall environment for organic farming remains depressing owing to a lack of government support.

Since the turn of the century, organic farming has been growing steadily across the world and particularly in Asia. India boasts of the largest number of organic farmers — 835,000 as of 2017 against the global total of 2.9 million — according to the latest report of FiBL, an organic farming information and research centre. But in Pakistan, this number is just nominal — 5,000. A lobbying group by the name of Pakistan Organic Association exists that runs a Facebook page to promote the cause of these 5,000 farmers spread across the country. Most of them continue to experiment organic cultivation of veggies on small farms measuring five acres or less, according to multiple local media reports. The Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) says that the total area under organic farming stood over 60,000 hectares in 2010.

Exporters of organic food products currently get organic certification from abroad because no such authority exists locally

No official update is available, but even if we assume that the area has since doubled to 120,000 hectares, that would still compare poorly with India’s 1.78m hectares as of 2017.

Obviously we are nowhere on the global or Asian map of organic agriculture. And that is not a good thing.

Organic farming needs due attention as it can ensure the supply of healthier food and also help us reduce the heavy import bill of chemical manure and pesticides and cut subsidies on locally produced fertilisers. At a time when foreign exchange-starved Pakistan is trying to limit its import spending and the federal government is trying to control local expenses by rationalising subsidies, promoting organic farming should make sense.

It is often argued that organic farming turns out to be more expensive than conventional farming. But a lot depends on ensuring economies of scale as well. Countries that have undertaken organic farming on a large scale find it affordable. The cost of production of the organically cultivated crops can be kept in check by applying some innovative methods and setting up clusters of organic farmers. Once federal and provincial authorities decide to promote organic farming, they can sort out this and all other issues through direct interaction with local and foreign agricultural experts, farmers and specialised global and regional research bodies.

With demand for organic food growing worldwide, Pakistan needs to produce more with an exportable surplus of organic products. The promised Chinese cooperation in our agriculture sector is yet to start in a big way. Pakistan can ask China, itself a sizable producer of organic food products, to provide funds for setting up exclusive organic agricultural zones across Pakistan.

According to PARC estimates, organic agriculture in Pakistan was worth $100m back in 2010. More recent data is not available, but given the pace of progress since then, one can assume the number would have at least doubled. But that is the size of organic farming and we don’t know exactly how much worth of organic food we export every year.

Exporters of organic food products currently get organic certification from abroad. The government should consider establishing a certification authority that meets international standards. Exporters of Halal food were in the same situation some years ago, but the establishment of the Pakistan Halal Authority has eased their certification problems.

The federal government has so far not shared all the details of the five-year agricultural revival programme worth Rs309.7bn, which will be jointly financed by the provinces. If this plan does envisage a road map for the uplifting of organic agriculture, then the government should share its details with the public at large, especially organic farmers. Ordinary Pakistanis also don’t know what the National Institute of Organic Agriculture of the PARC has been doing in recent years and how the government plans to strengthen the role of this institute.

Marketing of organic food products, in general, and organically grown vegetables and fruits, in particular, is an uphill task. Producers find it difficult to market the latter in regular wholesale fruit and vegetable markets for the simple reason that middlemen are less enthusiastic about it owing to higher prices. Supplying them directly to chains of superstores also becomes unfeasible owing to the much higher margins demanded by their owners. That is why only a handful of growers are somehow able to sell their produce to superstores and most of them have resorted to direct online marketing. Occasionally, they hold organic bazaars in shopping malls — the latest one was held in Lahore.

Or they find places in big cities to organise a weekly bazaar of organically produced vegetables and fruits. One such bazaar is held every weekend in Defence, Karachi.

Provincial and city governments can help farmers of organic vegetables and fruits by encouraging them to sell their produce in weekly bachat bazaars that are set up in large numbers in almost every district. They can be offered free-of-cost transportation services. Such a subsidy can also be provided to urban households involved in kitchen gardening or backyard organic farming.—­MA

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 30th, 2019