THE agricultural economy will continue to suffer from a high cost of production in the form of a growing use of pesticides. One of the major reasons is that an extremely understaffed Plant Protection Department (PPD) has failed to check the entry of pests and diseases through a “free-for-all” import of farm produce and food items at all land, air and sea routes of the country.

More worryingly, the issue doesn’t seem to be on the government’s list of priorities.

Nowhere in the world can one import any kind of farm products without getting a clearance certificate from the plant quarantine division of that country’s PPD declaring that the consignment is free from any pest and disease.

Even the baggage of passengers entering a country from any land, sea or air route is checked if they carry fruit, vegetable or seed. If the item being transported doesn’t have proper phytosanitary certification, it is seized and properly destroyed.

In some countries, quarantine checks are so strict that even researchers coming from abroad and carrying seed for their projects have to report to the department concerned and follow certain protocols

The quarantine checks are so strict that even researchers coming from abroad and carrying seed for their projects have to report to the department concerned and follow certain protocols.

Faisalabad Agriculture University Vice-Chancellor Dr Muhammad Ashraf recalls that he carried some seeds to Australia for a research project back in 1993. Although he produced phytosanitary certificates, the plant protection officials at the airport cleared the baggage only after a thorough inspection and testing, results of which were given after two months.

They also imposed the condition that the seeds would be destroyed in the presence of a PPD official after the completion of the project.

The situation is quite contrary in Pakistan. Anyone can import anything from anywhere without any check. While there are “small-time smugglers” bringing bagful of seeds from Bangkok and Dubai to meet their trip expenses, tonnes of vegetables, fruits, cotton and other crops are being imported through various sea, air and land routes without any inspection for pests and diseases.

While there are “small-time smugglers” bringing bagful of seeds from Bangkok and Dubai, tonnes of vegetables, fruits, cotton and other crops are being imported through various sea, air and land routes without any inspection for pests and diseases

PPD officials say they don’t have sufficient staff needed to work properly. “We have just 16 employees against the department’s approved strength of 75,” says a senior official of the department.

“Just consider the fact that two matriculate inspectors at Karachi seaport have to inspect 400 containers daily,” he laments, adding that influential importers routinely get their consignments released, even those suspected of containing diseased goods.

The situation is graver at land entry points such as the Torkham border, where there are no plant quarantine facilities, the official says. In violation of the law, large consignments of cotton from Central Asian states are imported through this point. These consignments are not free from live seeds, which are believed to be a source of attacks of whitefly and other pests, unheard of in the region, on the local cotton crop.

Dr Ashraf says 65 to 70 per cent of crop diseases are imported through the agriculture trade. He recalls that the unchecked import of some banana plants led to the destruction of the whole crop in Sukkur a few years ago.

But the quarantine issue or bio-security of the local crop is not on the radar screen, as neither the law is being strictly implemented nor is the strength of the PPD being improved.

“Despite repeated reminders, the authorities are not ready to give the already approved staff for which we don’t need extra budget and funds,” a PPD official says. “At an anti-smuggling meeting chaired by the prime minister, we sought 123 posts to meet the quarantine challenge but to no avail.”

A senior official of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research blames the “pesticide mafia” for not allowing the Plant Protection Department to function effectively for decades. “Pesticide business worth Rs80 billion is involved behind this situation. Now, the farmers need multiple sprays for the crops for which pesticides were rarely used in the past. So, allowing the quarantine law to take effect means losing huge profits earned through the sale of farm drugs.”

He says the PPD remained without a full-time director-general for two decades — from 1998 to 2018 — and the vacancy was filled on a one-year contract basis only after intervention by the Sindh High Court.

Understaffing also opens the door to corruption, as it makes it difficult to replace corrupt officials, he says.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 2nd, 2019