The agriculture sector grew 2.7 per cent in 2019-20. The government wants to see it grow 2.9pc in 2020-21. But growth in 2019-20 depicted a low-base effect. It followed just 0.6pc growth a year earlier. So meeting a 2.9pc growth target in 2020-21 might be difficult in the absence of a low base.

In 2019-20, agricultural growth remained good also because of strong performance of the crops’ sector that grew about 3pc against a 5pc contraction a year earlier. Low-base effect again! In 2020-21, this will not be the case.

Besides, desert locust attacks on crops assumed dangerous proportions after the paddy crop was fully harvested and large parts of wheat and summer maize crops of 2019-20 were also reaped. So the damage to the crops remained limited. This may or may not be the case in 2020-21. Pakistan realises and global experts warn that such attacks may become more devastating during 2020-21. Will the allocation of Rs10 billion for fighting locusts be enough to save the crop output? Nobody knows.

Agricultural initiatives require fuller coordination between federal and provincial authorities. They require effective and transparent implementation. How will that be possible amidst growing political chaos and expanding governance vacuum that are threatening our democracy itself? Nobody knows.

Agricultural initiatives require fuller coordination between federal and provincial authorities

A horrific surge in the cases of Covid-19 is an example of how things can go from bad to worse if the required coordination between the centre and the provinces remains missing.

A recent Bloomberg report said that in Sindh locusts have already damaged wheat, oilseeds, pulses, fodder and vegetable crops on 166,701 hectares or 13.8pc of the province’s total cropped area. The locust threat also poses a risk to Sindh’s cotton, sugar cane and other crops. Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research Syed Fakhar Imam told the National Assembly a few days ago that swarms of locusts were present in all 33 districts of Balochistan. He warned that new swarms might enter Pakistan via Iran and Afghanistan within two weeks.

The federal allocation of Rs10bn for fighting locusts is part of the Rs20bn programme that his ministry has devised for containing the damage caused by the tropical grasshopper. The provinces are supposed to contribute the remaining funds. Both federal and provincial governments will have to ensure that the money is utilised in the most transparent manner and does not cover the purchase of luxury vehicles etc for officials involved in its implementation. If the locust attack is not fought back forcefully, the damage to food crops and the resultant food insecurity and food inflation will create immense socio-economic problems and add to the current political chaos in the country.

The federal budget has also allocated Rs12bn for development projects in food security and agricultural growth. Whether this apparently small federal allocation will be helpful in ensuring food security depends on lots of things, including the size of the matching allocations by the provinces. To have a clearer picture of how achievable food security and agricultural growth objectives are, one will have to wait for the provincial budgets. In the post–Covid-19 world, food security will assume far more strategic importance. Even now when the pandemic is prevalent in most parts of the world and is far from over, its importance is obvious. While fighting the pandemic, feeding the population and keeping food reserves to meet a possible food shortage in the future should be the top priority.

More than 20.5pc of Pakistan’s population is undernourished and 44pc of children younger than five years of age are stunted, according to the UN World Food Programme. And the national nutrition survey of 2018 showed that 36.9pc of our population faced food insecurity. The statistics are scary.

Food security cannot be ensured by just boosting agricultural growth. The availability of larger amounts of food crops alone cannot ensure food security. People can become food secure only when there is enough of food grains and dairy and milk products available in local markets — and they can also afford them.

Average food inflation in July-May stood at 13.6pc and 16pc for urban and rural populations, respectively. Average national inflation during this period was 10.9pc. Food inflation to remain higher than general inflation is undesirable in a country like Pakistan where income levels are falling. And it is no less than an irony that rural people that produce food brave higher food inflation. Whatever the reasons, this betrays the commitment of our policymakers towards ensuring food security.

Details of the Rs12bn allocated in the federal budget for food security and agricultural development will become available in due course. But the allocation is too small. One will have to wait a little to see what the provinces have in store for development spending on food security.

Pakistan’s agricultural productivity is low. The performance of food crops remains erratic. Per-hectare yields, already far below global and regional averages, either rise too slowly or don’t rise at all. Livestock and fisheries sectors continue to cry for research and modernisation with the result that the output of dairy and meat does not grow fast. In fact, the Economic Survey of Pakistan furnishes estimated growth statistics on the basis of the inter-census growth rate between 1996 and 2006. All of this has implications for food security and food exports.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 15th, 2020