THE PTI government has an ambitious plan to develop agriculture over the next three years. It intends to invest Rs110bn — with equal contributions from the federal and provincial governments —and boost agriculture credit by 80pc to Rs2.7tr for almost doubling the grain harvest, increasing fruit and vegetable production five times, and trebling milk output. The government also suggests importing semen for free distribution among farmers to boost livestock productivity, supplying subsidised fertilisers, increasing the number of crops grown and encouraging fruit and vegetable production. The authors of the strategy expect the interventions will help alleviate rural poverty and enhance household incomes. The government is also hopeful that the interventions under this project will bring about a fundamental change in the agriculture sector by persuading farmers to venture into the commercial domain by growing more value-added crops and enhancing milk yields not only for the local market but also for exports.

Indeed, agriculture remains the lifeline of Pakistan’s economy. It is the source of livelihood for over 60pc of the population and employs nearly 40pc of the national labour force. Besides, the nation’s food security and the bulk of its manufactured exports are dependent on the performance of agriculture. The poor cotton and wheat harvests last year, for instance, show how a decline in this sector can intensify food insecurity, feed into domestic price inflation, increase the import bill and affect exports revenues. Sadly, previous governments are responsible for the criminal neglect of agriculture. It is, therefore, heartening to see the current administration focusing on agriculture and diverting resources to uplift it.

But will the government succeed in achieving its targets and make agriculture competitive through these interventions? Not really. To begin with, the suggested plan focuses mostly on subsidies without any mention of the required changes in an official policy that discourages growers from shifting from low- to high-value crops. The details released show that the government is still not addressing the root causes of the decline in agriculture, including but not limited to the lack of research in development of high-yield seeds, fighting disease and shifting weather patterns as well as slow adoption of modern technology, obsolete farm practices and decreasing soil fertility because of excessive chemical use. Neither does the plan spell out measures for supporting smallholder, subsistence farmers who are forced to take out a mortgage to purchase inputs like seed and fertilisers. Past experience shows that subsidies rarely help. Instead, the government should allocate maximum resources to promote agriculture research, set up initiatives to speed up adoption of modern farm technology and practices to increase productivity and reduce costs, encourage private investment in the supply chain to minimise wastages, increase growers’ access to cheaper formal credit, and link them directly to the markets to put more money in their pockets.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2021

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