Need for innovation in agriculture

Updated 10 Aug 2020

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It is critical that Pakistan starts embracing modern agriculture technology and innovation to protect and enhance the natural resource base while increasing productivity. — APP/File
It is critical that Pakistan starts embracing modern agriculture technology and innovation to protect and enhance the natural resource base while increasing productivity. — APP/File

Pakistan’s population is forecast to almost double in the next 30 years. That means we will have another 200 million mouths to feed by 2050. On top of rapid population growth, the changing climate or global warming is bringing new challenges to the nation’s food security — a total of 21m people in the country are already estimated to be acutely food insecure at present.

Being among the 10 countries affected most by climate change, Pakistan is on track to become the most water-stressed nations in the region by 2040. This will result in significant shortages of surface water availability for irrigation, industry and human consumption. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the number of extreme climate-related disasters have more than doubled since the 1990s with an average of 213 of these events occurring every year from 1990 through 2016, affecting agricultural productivity and causing harvest losses. For example, unusual temperature and humidity during the summer of 2019 had resulted in widespread harvest losses across cotton, rice and maize crops across much of Punjab and Sindh.

Leveraging drone technology alone will enable farmers to increase their productivity through improved pest management

Agriculture is the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy, accounting for almost a fifth of the economy and 42 per cent of the workforce in 2019. The total cropped area amounts to 23.4m hectares and is primarily worked by smallholders averaging 6.4 acres per farm. Of all arable land, 52pc is irrigated, accounting for more than 90pc of overall agriculture productivity. However, in spite of being a substantial part of the national economy, agriculture productivity is declining, impeding economic growth and causing food security concerns. Faced with these challenges, it is critical that Pakistan starts embracing modern agriculture technology and innovation to protect and enhance the natural resource base while increasing productivity.

Globally, the agriculture sector is at the cusp of a technology revolution. Modern farms and agricultural operations work far differently than those a few decades ago owing to the use of technologies including sensors, devices, machines and information technology. Today agriculture routinely uses sophisticated technologies such as robots, drones, temperature and moisture sensors, advanced gene editing, digital agriculture, etc. These advanced devices and precision agriculture allow businesses to be more profitable, efficient, safer and environmentally friendly. These technologies are ready to fuel the next wave of innovation in agriculture around the world and help farmers meet challenges posed by climate change, water scarcity and the burgeoning population.

The FAO estimates that the Internet of Things (IoT) can help increase agricultural productivity by 70pc by 2050. The technology, when scaled across Pakistan’s smallholder geography, can help farmers optimise the use of inputs and scarce resources they have for improved yields and greater profits, says Dr Muhammad Awais, a professor from the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “Similarly, a gene-editing technique using Crispr has untapped potential for greater crop productivity, enhanced nutritional value, reduce food wastage and climate resilience. In Pakistan’s context, small farmers are significantly more affected by insufficient information, unpredictable weather changes, soil erosion, yield loss due to pests and insects, and increase in input and cultivation costs. Therefore, technology adoption is even more essential for the transformation of agriculture. The use of high-yield crops resistant to disease, pests and adverse weather conditions can potentially help alleviate poverty, conserve the environment and ensure food security.”

Pakistan, unfortunately, has dragged its feet when it comes to embracing new technologies. While other developing economies have embraced innovation in agriculture, we are still rooted in traditional farming. The recent locust attack highlights this widening gap between Pakistan and progressive economies; while the world has shifted to unmanned aerial vehicles to combat these situations, Pakistan hasn’t been able to keep up with the pace of modern technology. Even with biotechnology, despite heavy public-sector investment for research and education of the technology, formal commercialisation of biotech crops remains a distant reality due to policy disconnects at various levels of the government.

Dr Yousuf Zafar, former chairman of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), stresses the need for adopting a more sustainable and technologically advanced approach to agriculture. “We must adopt practices involving sustainable use of our natural resources, allowing farmers to grow more with less. Technologies such as laser land levelling, solar-powered high-efficiency irrigation systems, smart water grids and drones need to be promoted for precision agriculture and higher productivity. Leveraging drone technology in agriculture alone will enable farmers to increase their productivity through improved pest management and increased precision owing to their increasing applications, such as aerial mapping, plant health monitoring, soil analysis and weed detection.”

Experts argue that the potential of technological advancement in agriculture remains untapped owing to the absence of an overarching legislative and policy framework and an outdated regulatory regime. The changes in technology have far outpaced changes in the regulatory and legislative frameworks, and the regulatory regimes are inefficient and lack adequate resources. This has discouraged private sector investment in research and development and enhanced barriers to entry for new agriculture technologies. Public sector institutions lack financial and technical resources for research and development and are ill-equipped to keep pace with rapidly changing industry landscape, says Dr Zafar.

Moreover, the rate of technology adoption has been slow and lacks innovative approach towards local adaptation with archaic marketing systems and subsidy operations incentivising subsistence farming practices, limiting investment in commercial agriculture due to such value chain distortions. “Sadly, the importance of sustainable agriculture has not been a mainstream theme in the prevailing policy discourse, resulting in overall neglect by policymakers,” the former PARC chairman argues.

With the pace of technological advancements in agriculture reaching an unprecedented level, an enabling business environment must be created in the country for timely adoption of new and novel technologies to boost agriculture as well as encourage innovation and attracts meaningful investments in research.

A strong and stable policy, legal and regulatory framework would provide an environment to facilitate long-term investment and technology transfer by firms and other innovation actors. The government must ensure that the prevailing legal framework is evolving with new innovations and technologies.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 10th, 2020