AGRICULTURE is the lifeline of Pakistan’s economy. It is a source of livelihood for two-thirds of the country’s population living in villages and employs almost 39pc of the national labour force besides contributing to the nation’s overseas shipments of textiles, leather, rice, etc, which together form around three-quarters of the export revenue. More importantly, the country’s food security is reliant on the performance of the agriculture sector. Yet, only a negligible amount of money is spent on research and development to develop new high-yield seed varieties, assist farmers adopt modern technologies, improve soil fertility, help cattle owners increase milk yield and meat production for domestic and export markets, and so on. On top of that, smallholders are left at the mercy of middlemen and speculators for credit to buy inputs at hefty costs. Much of the government input subsidies are directed towards major crops such as wheat, rice and sugarcane, a policy that discourages growers to shift from low- to high-value crops. Research shows that improvement in crop output is driven primarily by expansion of the cultivable area and the increased use of chemicals, which has spawned food-safety concerns. It is also hinders efforts to boost agricultural exports.
Thus, it is not without reason that Prime Minister Imran Khan has termed agriculture “the most important sector” for the country’s future. We do not know what it means, but he has also directed the Punjab government to “remove all hurdles for facilitating farmers” and develop strategies for trebling agricultural production. No matter how important the prime minister’s message is, it will sound hollow unless it is backed by radical changes in federal and provincial policies affecting the competitiveness of the farm sector. With food demand rising continuously on the back of high population growth, the government needs to allocate more resources to agriculture research, and set up initiatives to encourage adoption of innovative farm technologies. Inefficient subsidies, as shown by many studies, mostly end up in the pockets of middlemen or big farmers instead of helping smallholders. Besides, programmes are needed for increasing growers’ access to cheaper, formal credit and linking them directly to the markets to eliminate the role of middleman to reduce their costs and raise their incomes. A well-developed agriculture sector can contribute majorly to national economic development and help alleviate rural poverty. For this to happen, policymakers need to clean up the mess they have made in this important sector.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2021