THIS season the country has reaped an all-time high wheat output of 28.75 million tonnes, two million tonnes more than the target of 26.78 million tonnes. The government claims the milestone has been achieved through a 3.25 per cent increase in the area under wheat, a favourable weather throughout the season that helped grow a healthy grain and repel yellow rust attack, and employing of more intensive labour as well as improved farm input use by the growers in the wake of a better price they had secured for their crop last year.
If one goes by the official data, though some experts suspect the official figure saying it lacked any substantial reason in support of the yield boost, the country is far from achieving its food security even with this record output of grain, the main staple food of the population.
The Federal Committee on Agriculture (FCA) has estimated that the country will need 29.50 million tonnes, including one million tonnes of strategic reserves, of wheat to feed its people until the next harvest. The Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) estimates per capita consumption of wheat at 125 kg per annum as grains make up on an average 60pc of daily diet of an ordinary citizen. The recently released results of the 2017 census put the national population figure at over 220.5 million. This means the country has enough wheat to meet its food security and with import of around 500,000 tonnes of grain it will be able to maintain its strategic reserves as there are about 324,000 tonnes of carryover stocks.
But this simple calculation excludes three factors: the need for more than one million tonnes of seed for the next plantation, staple food requirements of close to 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in the country, and smuggling of approximately 300,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan each year. To meet these needs, the government will have to import over 1.5 million tonnes more wheat taking the total import to over two million tonnes to make the country food secure for the year [the federal food ministry has announced plans to import four million tonnes of grain]. This will give a headache to the foreign exchange-starved government already worried at the rising food import bill.
The National Price Monitoring Committee (NPMC) that recently met under the chair of Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin tasked National Food Security & Research Minister Syed Fakhar Imam and Industries Minister Khusro Bakhtyar to look for options to bring down the volume of food imports.
The government’s worries are not implausible. For nature may not be supporting all the time. As one sees that during the last decade there had thrice been a substantial decline in the expected wheat output: -6.9pc in 2012, -3.44pc in 2015, and -3.19pc in 2019. Also the increase in wheat acreage has come at the cost of the area under sugarcane and cotton crops. And the cut in the acreage of the two cash crops means costlier import of the sweetener and white lint to meet domestic needs. A Catch-22 position for the government.
The only solution to the situation lies in improving crops per acre yields. Dr Javed Ahmad, Director of the Ayub Agricultural Research Institute, Faisalabad, says the seed varieties developed by AARI have genetic potential of nine tonnes per hectare yield but certain factors are reducing the yield to one-third of the potential. Non-availability of certified seed and lower than needed fertiliser intake are the two major reasons he puts forth behind the poor wheat production as compared to neighbouring India and China which are harvesting four and six tonnes per hectare, respectively.
Dr Ahmad claims that both public and private sectors combined are meeting only 25pc of wheat seed needs and the rest of the gap is covered by farmers’ own retained seed or borrowed from fellow peasants or dealers with an untested and weak genetic potential.
Similarly, the fertiliser use in the country is one-fourth to that of in India that further hurts the yield potential, he adds, calling for improving farmers’ awareness level at least on these two counts to double the grain output from the same amount of land and water and with a nominal increase in fertiliser costs in the shortest possible time.
Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2021