THE new official projections for provisional wheat output suggest that Punjab may harvest around 20.5m tonnes of wheat this year, well above the initial estimates of 19.6m tonnes and last year’s output of 19.4m tonnes. The improved wheat harvest is attributable mainly to an overall increase of 3.5pc in the area under cultivation because of enhancement in the minimum wheat support price by over 28pc to Rs1,800 per 40kg, as well as favourable weather conditions. The higher-than-expected Punjab harvest is likely to help the country achieve at least its second highest wheat output ever even if it doesn’t push it closer to the record high production of 26.7m tonnes five years ago. The better crop is indeed a good development for national food security objectives and is likely to cut the growing food import bill of the cash-strapped government. But it doesn’t mean that our wheat troubles will be over soon.
For starters, overall wheat production remains significantly lower than rising domestic consumption, which, according to some estimates, has exceeded 27.5m tonnes because of a high population growth rate. Hence, Pakistan is no more self-sufficient in wheat in spite of bringing maximum acres under the staple crop. Bringing more land under cultivation without raising productivity can help only so much. There is no easy fix for the nation’s food security issues. There never was. The long-term sustainable solution lies in investment in the agricultural infrastructure and development of new high-yield seed varieties, as well as adoption of modern farm practices and technologies to raise crop output. Simultaneously, the government needs to review the impact of its policies on the agriculture sector and reduce its excessive interventions in the market in the name of supporting farmers and urban consumers. Past experiences show that such interventions have only created distortions in the market instead of protecting the growers from manipulative investors or consumers from price inflation. It is going to be a tough decision for the government. But it has to be made sooner or later.
Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2021