AGRO-ECOLOGICAL zones have been identified in Punjab to formulate policies and strategies for a sustainable and diversified use of natural resources and investments to harness production potential.

The development is a result of two years of collective work by institutions and teams of experts, backed by the Punjab government and supported by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.

Data compiled in the agro-economic zones report reveals an enormous potential for crop diversification and precision for enhanced crop productivity. That includes land characteristics, topography, land use, soil and water analysis, weather and climate, yield and profitability, which can lead to making recommendations towards what should be grown and where and when.

Crop suitability maps have been developed for more than 50 commodities, and this meticulous rehash of agro-ecological zones could make smallholders farming a profitable business and promote overall efficient agricultural enterprising.

The purpose of establishing agro-ecological zones in Punjab is to devise policies and strategies for sustainable and diversified use of natural resources to improve production potentials in agriculture. There is a need to plan cropping systems for different areas according to water availability, soil and climatic conditions.

In order to plan cropping systems, the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) divided Pakistan into ten distinct zones in 1980 based on physical geography, climate, land use and water availability. It divided Punjab into four broad categories with eleven sub-zones.

Agriculture contributes around one quarter to Punjab’s GDP, but the overall added value from this sector in the provincial economy is disproportionately low compared to other sectors

Due to the changing climate from 1980 to 2017, PARC identified 11 zones, whereas the new study delineated 14 zones, including Cholistan desert, arid irrigated, cotton-sugarcane, Rod Kohi, semi-desert irrigated, mix cropping, cotton mix cropping, maize-wheat mix cropping, Thal-gram crop, rice-wheat, Thal zone-2, rice zone, groundnut-medium rainfall, and high rainfall.

Suitability maps of agronomic crops showed that wheat is suitable for cultivation in the whole of Punjab except in a few areas of the province, such as Attock and Rawalpindi.

Rice is most suitable in areas of upper Punjab such as Gujranwala, Sialkot and Gujrat, and in a few areas of Sheikhupura, Sargodha and Nankana Sahib. Cotton is most suitable in the lower areas of Punjab such as Khanewal, Vehari, Multan, Muzaffargarh, Bahawalpur and Bahawalnagar.

Suitability maps of fruits showed that citrus fruits can be grown in different patches across the whole of Punjab, while the core areas include Jhelum, Sargodha, Gujranwala, Layyah and Rajanpur. Mango is most suited to central Punjab and a few areas of lower Punjab, including Rajanpur, Rahim Yar Khan, etc. Guava is best for cultivation in central Punjab and a few areas of upper Punjab such as Gujrat, Jhelum and Sialkot.

The suitability maps of vegetables showed that garlic is suited to almost all of Punjab except in Attock and Rawalpindi. Cabbage is suitable for cultivation in Gujrat and Narowal, and in a few patches in all of Punjab. The most suitable areas for turnip cultivation are Bhakkar, Layyah, and Mianwali, which are the desert areas of Punjab.

Agriculture contributes around one quarter to the GDP of Punjab, whose share is two-thirds of the total national agricultural output, leading in major commodities meant for food security in the country.

However, the overall added value from agriculture in Punjab’s economy is disproportionately low compared to other sectors of the economy, according to the chairman of the agro-ecological zones committee, Iqrar Ahmad Khan, who is also a former vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad.

The agro-ecological zoning of Punjab is a cornerstone in the efforts towards transforming Punjab’s agricultural and food systems. Agro-ecological zones will allow the identification of the most suitable cropping systems through critical analysis and assessment of agro-climatic and edaphic (soil-related) variables, as well as the available resources for crop production, and the development of agriculture integrated production planning.

It will further aim to assist agriculturists in improving the yield of major crops, by correctly identifying the production potential of the agricultural systems which is driven by climate, soil characteristics and landform conditions. This will, in the end, enhance agricultural efficiency and economic development, coupled with sustainability, says FAO Representative in Pakistan Mina Dowlatchahi.

“FAO stands ready to continue assisting the agricultural sector of Pakistan to add to the contribution from agriculture to the national economy and livelihoods of rural communities,” she adds.

Unlike the previous agro-ecological zones exercise carried out in 1980, when only regional climate data was used to delineate agro-ecological zones for conventional crops, the current methodology brings big data and analytics into the equation to delineate new agro-ecological zones at a scale of 100 metres, keeping in view the small landholdings of the country.

The new agro-ecological zones revealed an enormous potential for crop diversification as well as substantially enhanced crop productivity. The meticulous assessment of agro-ecological zones will help to make smallholder farming a profitable business and enhance overall agriculture efficiency because successful adoption of cropping systems and crops in a specified region heavily depends on critical analysis and assessment of agro-climatic norms and available resources for crop production.

Last week, FAO published a report on agro-ecological zones, which says that for the last two decades there has been no improvement in the yield of major crops. This may be due to factors including climate variability, the cultivation of crops in areas that are not suitable for those crops (for instance, planting rice in an area more suitable for cotton), declining water availability, gradual changes in the soil nutrient status and a lack of true-to-type cultivars.

Pakistan’s agriculture sector has been dominated by five crops: wheat, rice, sugar cane, maize and cotton. The narrow choice of crops is due mainly to a lack of understanding about the scope for more crops and a misallocation of resources. Also, the country has been unable to take advantage of the diversity of climate and land geographies, and consequently, it has become a net importer of otherwise locally cultivable crops such as fruits, vegetables, pulses and oilseeds, among others.

This also means the country spends enormous amounts of foreign exchange to import edible oil, pulses and seeds of many agricultural crops. There is a need to diversify and add more crops to existing cropping systems to achieve sustainability and diversification. The disadvantages and limitations associated with the expansion of cropland make it critically important to know where and how to increase crop yield on existing cropland area.

An assessment of the physical and biological potential of natural resources that leads to the delineation of agro-ecological zones specific to crops presents a useful preliminary evaluation of this potential and ensures that representation is maintained at an appropriate bio-geographic scale for regional sustainable development planning.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 13th, 2020