Agriculture, by far, is the biggest human activity in Pakistan, providing a way of life to two-thirds of the population, contributing 22.7 per cent to GDP, providing 37.4pc of national employment and anchoring over 70pc of exports.

Despite this phenomenal importance, the last 75 years present a patchy picture of the sector: progressing here and regressing there — enviable during a certain period and disappointing in others. Painting this decade-wise picture tells us that it witnessed record growth in the 1960s before slumping during the early 1970s. Recovering in the second half of the 70s, it sustained around 5pc growth in the 80s and 90s.

Since then, a growth rate between less than 1pc to 4pc has merely covered population growth and demand for food and fibre for the last two decades.

Historically speaking, the stage for early growth was set by a commission in the late fifties, which led to multiple development strategies through the sixties. Commonly known as the Green Revolution, it was an era of high, rather record, growth with the introduction of high-yielding crop varieties. Modern inputs like fertiliser and pesticides were introduced and progressive irrigation ways revolutionised the sector.

Despite early victories, lack of investments in research and planning has led to the disappointing over-reliance on imports while water is scarce and soil deteriorates

During that decade (1963-73), Pakistan’s per capita income grew by a healthy 27pc. As added an advantage, this growth mainly occurred in rural areas, where poverty resided. This high growth period led to the setting up of the embryonic fertiliser, tractor and seed industry, which later grew to expand to their current levels. The early seventies also saw the beginning of the poultry industry, which now boasts of over Rs400 billion investment and is a proud global competitor when it comes to technology and stocks.

The next foundational policy document was produced three decades down the line by Pakistan’s most prolific technocrat Sartaj Aziz in the late eighties, which not only diagnosed the then emerging ills but also prescribed its treatment and set parameters for the way forward. For most writers and experts in the sector, it is still considered the most relevant, but ignored, document.

For the next 34 years ago, no one bothered to seek guidelines from it or refresh it through another attempt at the same level, thus creating a policy vacuum at the national level.

However, beyond these works, which should have created a policy and development discipline, the sector has grown at its own pace and direction — dictated by potential and profits, regardless of sustainability and cost of the experiment.

In the last seven decades, crop concentration has hit 167pc against the 67pc of irrigation planning — producing three crops instead of the historical one crop from the same soil. Imported hybrid seeds multiplied the number and yields of crops beyond most calculations and sustainability.

For example, maize, which at merely 705,000 tonnes in the 70s, has gone beyond eight million tonnes. Rice numbers grow both in variety and yield and hit production of 7.5m tonnes — with over 4m tonnes being exported — making Pakistan the tenth largest producer globally.

Cotton production rose from 188,000 bales in the 1950s to over 14m bales at one point, before dipping down to half of it right now. Sugarcane stood at 81m tonnes in 2020 — rising from 23m tonnes in 1971. The potato crop has gone beyond 6m tonnes.

All these figures look impressive when taken out of context because they have put Pakistan on the world food map in a respectable position: cotton, rice and mango (4th), milk, sugarcane and date palm (5th), citrus (6th), wheat and onion (7th), chickpea (3rd) and apricot (6th).

However, when taken in the backdrop of the cost of this unplanned growth on soil health and underground water, the achievements are disastrous. According to global standards, the soil must have 1.29pc organic matter to qualify as healthy. In Pakistan, most of it has fallen below 1pc, with massive tracks having only half of 1pc.

As far as subsoil water is concerned, Pakistan’s potential is 68bn square meters, out of which 60bn square meters are being exploited. It is not being exploited only in those areas where pumping the water out is not feasible for technical or economic reasons. It means that this resource is almost exhausted. In most of Punjab, as some recent studies indicate, the level is dropping by one to three feet every year.

Even among those crops, which have seen a phenomenal rise in the last few decades, the two most crucial ones — wheat and cotton — have hit stubborn stagnation. Wheat has been stuck at 25m tonnes for the last eight years, with little variation every year — turning Pakistan into a net importer over the last four years.

Similarly, cotton production is actually receding, leaving the industry largely dependent on imports as other crops hog its area and economic sheen. Since policy planning and direction are missing, Pakistan is importing both at great foreign exchange pain.

These seven decades also present two more phenomenal failures: mechanisation and research. Since independence, mechanisation meant tractorisation and some harvesting and thrashing units. The tractor industry, which was the harbinger of the farm mechanisation process, has hogged all subsidies and other benefits for itself, leaving others out and ignoring the fact that the tractor does not perform at its optimum utility when running on its wheels alone — it needs implements alongside to hit optimum utility and most of them are simply not there.

Soil generally needs three kinds of inputs — primary (soil preparation), secondary (agronomic practices) and tertiary (harvesting). All of them need a complete range of implements which are missing in Pakistan’s scheme of things. Successive governments have announced subsidies on tractors and ignored the rest and compromised farm mechanisation in the process.

Research has also been a sore point in Pakistan’s context. It has spent far less than 1pc of agriculture GDP on research, against 6-7pc by others like India. This only increased dependence on imported seeds, which defied local ecological realities and soon lost utility. Climate change has added urgency to research requirements and makes this investment absolutely necessary.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 15th, 2022

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