A bleak prognosis of wheat

Published February 14, 2022

The already cash-starved Pakistan will be facing an increasing food import bill as experts fear up to a 15 per cent drop in the domestic wheat yield due to shrinking acreage, poor application of fertiliser, water scarcity, limited certified seeds, etc, leading to further reliance on imported grain. Estimates suggest that the country will need to import around four million tonnes of grain to meet the local shortfall.

Pakistan had harvested a bumper crop and produced a record 28.75m tonnes of wheat last season. It had to import 2.2m tonnes of grain to meet local requirements and build strategic reserves of 1m tonnes. A 15pc loss in the yield means there will not be more than 25m tonnes wheat output this year.

Read more: Farmers doubt govt’s wheat sowing figures

The federal government had been eyeing a 30m tonnes wheat production target during 2021-22 and for this purpose had asked the provinces to increase their respective areas under grain cultivation and per acre yield by effectively utilising rust-resistant and certified seeds, water and proper usage of fertilisers and pesticides.

The Wheat Review Committee that met in September had directed Punjab to enhance its wheat production from 20.9m tonnes in 2020-21 to 23m tonnes during the next crop season. Other provinces were also asked to help achieve the national wheat target of 30m tonnes. Sindh had reaped 4.04m tonnes, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 1.45m tonnes and Gilgit-Baltistan 1.15m tonnes grains last year.

Wheat lost its acreage during the late sowing season when DAP and urea crises developed and the growers were diverted to alternative crops such as potatoes and oilseeds

The committee established some parameters to effectively monitor wheat sowing. These parameters included achieving the target for the area under cultivation, sowing method (drilling or broadcasting), the quantum of fertiliser (both di-ammonium phosphate and urea) used during sowing, certified seeds, seed varieties (whether old or new should be rust tolerant), availability of herbicides and fertiliser, pricing status etc.

Unfortunately, most of the parameters could not be met during the wheat sowing season. Punjab, which contributes around 76pc of the total wheat production, could sow only 16.21m acres against the target of 16.67m acres, a shortfall of over 500,000 acres. Similarly, there was a 17pc deficit of DAP offtake in the season because of its extraordinarily high rates, whereas urea compost sales posted a 12pc decline in January when it was most needed for the wheat crop.

As far as certified seeds are concerned both the public and private sector could provide only 25pc of the required seeds — around 530,000 tonnes of seed, including 160,000 tonnes of rust-tolerant varieties. The rest of the demand was met by farmers’ own retained crops.

“Targets cannot be achieved just through wishful thinking,” says a senior official of the Punjab Agriculture Department. “No worthwhile measures were taken to ensure availability of fertiliser though the shortage of compost had begun to develop well before the sowing season. A decision on the minimum support price was also taken late and it has been matched with that of Sindh’s price of Rs2,200 per 40kg only recently when even the late sowing season is over.”

Punjab Crop Reporting Service Director Dr Abdul Qayyum says the positive factor is that over 70pc of the wheat in the province had been sown in the most suitable time — between mid-November and mid-December. Warning that March rains will be damaging for the crop, he says wheat lost its acreage during the late sowing season when DAP and urea crises developed and the growers were diverted to alternative crops like potato and oilseeds.

Barring a couple of years, however, the weather has not been supportive during the last six years as heavy pre-monsoon rains have been lashing the country in March. There are already reports of rust attacks from top wheat-producing districts of Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur and Khanewal. The National Agromet Centre so far predicts two to three spells of light to moderate rains in March. Dr Qayyum says the rust attack so far is negligible but shall become serious in case of more rains.

Ayub Agricultural Research Institute, Faisalabad, Director Dr Javed Ahmad fears a five to 15pc drop in the yield this season if the weather becomes unfavourable for all other factors that had led to achieving over 31.34 maunds per acre yield last year are negative this time. The wheat expert claims that the January showers robbed the plants of whatever nitrate was available in the soil, while poor application of DAP and urea would surely hit the growth and size of the grain. This would be over and above the yield loss due to the shrinking of the acreage, he adds.

Stressing on the need for improving acreage and per acre yield, National Food Security and Research Minister Syed Fakhr Imam says five to six million people are added to the country’s growing population every year, which is further increasing the demand for wheat in the country.

This wheat shortage scenario will give sleepless nights to the country’s financial managers already upset at the widening budgetary gap and critical foreign exchange position. Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin had asked the provincial governments to do something to control the rising food import bill. At the prevailing around $310 per tonne wheat prices in the global commodity market, Islamabad will need to spend over $1.2 billion to import 4m tonnes of grain.

But all is not good in the world markets. Pakistan usually imports wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Reports suggest that Russian wheat output will decline in the marketing year 2021-22 because of dry and warm summers there. It has set its wheat export quota at 8.0m tonnes over Feb 15-June 30. And the prices may see volatility due to border tensions between Russia and Ukraine as commodity market observers fear the price may double in case of escalation in the tension. Even a minor clash may push the prices up by 10 to 20pc, they say, recalling the 25pc jump in grain rates when Russia had annexed Crimea in 2014.

In the last calendar year, the Trading Corporation of Pakistan had received offers between $369 and $383 per tonne (including cost and freight) for the import of wheat.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 14th, 2022

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