IMAGINE, a country 19 times smaller in size and 12 times smaller in population than ours is beating Pakistan at its own game: agriculture. According to the Netherlands government’s official website, the country exports agricultural produce worth 65 billion euros a year. That is three times more than our exports in all sectors combined. Pakistan has been an agricultural country since its inception. According to official statistics, agriculture contributes 24pc to GDP, accounts for half of the country’s employed labour force and is the largest source of foreign exchange earnings. But still, the poverty rate in the rural sector is double that in urban areas; malnutrition and stunted growth are prevalent; and Pakistan has become a net importer of food and agriculture produce.
Something has gone fundamentally wrong with our agricultural practices in the last seven decades. Pakistan has never owned its agriculture sector wholeheartedly and in an effort to become a services- or manufacturing sector-led economy, has lost its edge in the agriculture sector which could have been its relative advantage in international trade.
Read more: Ailing farm sector
Ironically, the Netherlands is not growing something that requires rocket science and much of it can be cultivated on Pakistani soil. Its exports consist of cereals, vegetables, feed crop, flowers, meat and dairy products with wheat, potatoes, onions, vegetable seeds, barley, corn and sugar beets being the main items. The share of agriculture in total exports is 17.5pc of which a quarter goes to Germany alone. The resemblance is uncanny as Pakistan has so much potential and there are several countries in our region alone that can become the sole markets for our agricultural produce.
Something has gone wrong with our farm sector.
What makes the Netherlands different from us is the synthesis of technology and sheer commitment and passion to the agricultural sector. It all started two decades ago when the Dutch made a national commitment of ‘twice as much food using half as many resources’. Today, the government works closely with farmers and entrepreneurs and provides subsidies, knowledge and farm management techniques to make agriculture and horticulture sustainable. The use of precision farming, greenhouses and drones has made it possible to monitor soil chemistry, water needs and the growth of each plant in real time. The practices have been made environment-friendly with all greenhouses becoming net zero emitters by 2020. According to the National Geographic, the Netherlands now uses 90pc less water and produces at least twice more than global averages. There’s increased focus on organic farming, free of hazardous chemicals and pesticides.
We lack firm commitment and a clear direction for our agriculture sector. While Pakistan is set to buy second-hand mine-hunter vessels from the Netherlands, Bangladesh is further strengthening its ties with that country in areas of infrastructural development, water management and food security. Outdated agricultural practices, reliance on water-intensive crops, leaving everything to the farmer while landowners and middlemen reap profits, the continuing influx of labour in already overpopulated cities, and the massive use of pesticides and chemicals are wreaking havoc on Pakistan’s agriculture sector.
Editorial: Agriculture woes
Vast opportunities in the agriculture sector present it as a low-hanging fruit for Pakistan. To reap the benefits, we don’t have to invest huge sums in creating special zones, redirecting the labour force, changing demographic dynamics or producing something new. The government just needs to set the path right and give national direction to producing the same crop but doing it differently. Instead of giving loans for rickshaws and taxis, incentives should be redirected towards the agricultural sector to motivate the workforce as well as the youth entering the labour market. If the government can’t educate them and make them doctors and engineers, at least, it can make them good farmers by teaching them better farming techniques and global best practices.
Editorial: Neglect of farm sector
Bringing Pakistan’s agricultural output at par with the Netherlands is not an easy task but then ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. We have a lot to catch up with as the world is moving toward urban farming, vertical farming, hydroponics, aquaponics, use of robotics, drones and autonomous tractors aiming to produce 10 to 20 times more from the same land. Our labour force is three times more than the entire population of the Netherlands and women constitute more than 72pc of the agricultural labour force, according to an FAO report. Just imagine the dividends if Pakistan could turn around the agricultural sector by producing even to the level of its current potential.
The writer is a PhD scholar at the University of Naples Parthenope and is associated with IBA Karachi.
Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2022