PAKISTAN has been declared a water deficit country by the World Bank and the Asian Development bank because its per capita water is below 1,000 cubic metres per annum with the situation becoming worst. Much of Pakistan’s high water usage stems from its largely agrarian economy. Almost 70 per cent of the population is directly or indirectly employed by the agriculture sector, which accounts for 26pc of its GDP.
Farmers cultivate 21.2 million hectares of land of which more than 80pc is irrigated. Farming is dominated by four water-intensive crops: wheat, sugarcane, rice and cotton. As a result, 93pc of the water consumed in Pakistan is used for agriculture (the global average is closer to around 70pc). While these crops are imperative for food security and industry, it is time to rethink the equation.
It is important to consider crops that require a smaller quantity of water while providing food security. Pulses are one good option.
Input costs and market prices indicate that they offer profit margins of 40-50pc, require less fertiliser and significantly less water than the major crops grown in the country
An annual crop, pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family. Packed with nutrients, high proteins and fibre, they grow in pods and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours. Chickpeas and lentils contain 20-25pc of proteins and 10-15pc of fibre along with iron, zinc and folate. Pulses have a very low level of fats thus help reduce obesity-related chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart problems.
Pulses are highly water-efficient, emit low levels of greenhouse gases and can be stored for long periods without losing their nutritional value.
In Pakistan, four major pulses are consumed: chickpea, lentil, moong and mash. We are number seven globally in the production of chickpeas and number 22 for the production of lentils while moong and mash crops are insignificant.
According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 977 million tonnes of pulses were imported in 2018-19 at a cost of Rs68.27 billion. When compared to the 2018-19’s export earnings of sugar at Rs32.147bn, wheat at Rs20.12bn and raw cotton at Rs2.708bn, the import bill of pulses is too high.
Among major rabi crops, Rs33,724 is required to cultivate one acre of wheat that produces 1,309kg. On the other hand, one acre of chickpeas can produce 245kg and can be grown at an input cost of Rs14,566. The support price of wheat is Rs1,365 per 40kg and the minimum market price of black chickpeas is Rs10,500 per 100kg. Wheat earns a profit of Rs10,045 per acre while chickpeas earn Rs11,150 per acre. This comparison takes irrigation and fertiliser used into account.
A crop of chickpeas requires one to two irrigations whereas wheat requires four to five irrigations. Similarly, chickpeas require 9kg of nitrogen and 23kg of phosphorous per acre compared to wheat’s nitrogen requirement of 54kg, a phosphorous requirement of 34kg and potassium requirement of 25kg. Moreover, chickpeas develop nodules on roots which fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil and increase its fertility.
Another rabi pulse crop is lentil. It requires only two irrigations and one bag of diammonium phosphate Kharif season includes major crops such as rice, cotton and maize. Moong and mash have two seasons, i.e. spring and summer. Moong earns Rs9,400 per 40kg in the market with an input cost of Rs3,025, therefore its profit is significantly high.
Mash’s input cost is Rs4,313 per 40kg with a market price of Rs7,200. The corresponding input cost of rice is Rs1,490 with a price range of Rs2,000-3,200. Input cost for maize crop is Rs884 per 40kg with the market price ranging between Rs1,200 and Rs1,400 per 40kg.
The input cost of sugarcane is Rs113 per 40kg while its corresponding support price is Rs192. It requires irrigation every 20-30 days. Although it is a cash crop that earns a reasonable profit, it is also exhaustive and depletes the soil of its nutrients.
Input costs and market prices indicate that pulses offer profit margins of 40-50pc while none of the major crops grown in the country is as benevolent. Furthermore, the latter requires a higher use of fertiliser and water. Pulse crops need only three irrigations while rice grows in standing water and maize requires 12 to 14 irrigations. The investment of water is too high on these crops.
Pakistan is spending more on buying pulses than earning through exports of other cereals which require more water as well. The area under pulses is very small. Chickpeas are cultivated the most with an area of 1m hectares, 80pc of which is in the desert that provides a low level of nutrients and is under poor crop management because of which the potential yield is decreased.
Yield can be improved if pulses are grown in irrigated areas using practices such as proper weeding and pest control. Advance production technologies of pulses have been developed and certified seeds of high-yielding climate-resilient varieties are available. However, data indicates less than 5pc of farmers use certified seeds of recommended varieties.
A water deficit country needs to save every drop of water and pulses are the hope of the future in increasing water usage efficiency and food security.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 8th, 2020