The adverse effects of climate change are unfolding in Pakistan. Excessive use of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) in the last few decades has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases, resulting in higher mean temperature, intense heat waves and erratic rainfall, causing severe droughts and floods.
Climate change also affects the physiology and morphology of crops, soil fertility, pest attack, irrigation requirements and water availability. Such variability in the basic parameters of productive ecosystems has significant implications for the agriculture sector and, in turn, the food security of Pakistan.
Food availability in line with per capita dietary needs is a primary dimension of food security which depends upon the level of food production and the stock availability of major staple food crops such as wheat, rice and maize in the country.
Wheat is the largest staple food in Pakistan and has remained the main cornerstone of food security. Pakistan grows wheat in both irrigated and rain-fed (barani) production systems. However, barani tracts, stretching over millions of hectares, are more susceptible to climate variables like rainfall and temperature.
Around 8pc reduction in harvest and post-harvest losses can offset the total wheat import of Pakistan, which is equal to almost two million tonnes
Timely rains in November, December, January, and February positively affect wheat not only in barani but also in irrigated areas. However, rains in late March and April at the grain maturity stage tend to impact yield negatively.
In addition, temperature variations have become very uncertain in recent times, which is highly devastating for crops. For example, during the last wheat season, heat waves (extraordinary high temperature) in March and April reportedly decreased wheat yield by 5-10 per cent in the principal wheat growing areas as the grains could not attain their full size.
The two major climate variables, rainfall and temperature, also significantly affect the rice crop — Pakistan’s second largest staple food. Rain has a positive effect on rice yield, but the rising temperature has a significantly negative impact, especially during the pollination stage. Corn (maize) is not an exception. High night temperature, greater temperature during pollination and water stress negatively affect crop yield.
Due to such unpredictable climate variables, production (crop yield) risk has increased significantly, which has put at risk the food security of Pakistan.
Another important dimension of food security is access to food in terms of affordability and physical reach. Access to food is influenced by the income of buyers, market mechanisms and prices of food. It should be kept in mind that global food production is greater than its consumption. Yet millions of people in third world countries suffer from hunger, given their inability to purchase food. Over the last few years, what a common man can afford has decreased as food prices shot up, further exacerbating food insecurity in the country.
The pandemic, current drought in Europe, Russian invasion of Ukraine, blockage of transportation of food and disruption of food supply chain have added another dimension to food security — self-sufficiency. India’s export ban on sugar and wheat this year reflects its objective of producing and storing enough grain.
In March 2022, China’s President Xi Jinping sought to ensure that “Chinese bowls are mainly filled with Chinese food”. It is expected that some other countries may consider such a policy as the pandemic, conflict, and climate change may disrupt the global food system.
Therefore, to ensure food security, it is imperative to increase food supply. In the past, Pakistan successfully increased production of major staple food crops by adding new land. But, due to water constraints, currently additional land is not being added at the same pace, which can be adequate enough to match the population growth of the country, at least. To top it off, rapidly growing housing colonies in cities are eating up fertile agricultural land.
The recent increase in support price of wheat will encourage crop switching. Additional wheat area at the cost of oilseed crops and chickpea crop may lead to increase in the import bill of edible oil and pulses.
In the given context, the most viable option is to increase cropping intensity (number of crops in one year) and land productivity (crop yield). To this end, a three-pronged strategy can help achieve the intended results.
First, Pakistan needs new high-yielding wheat varieties that can perform under new climatic conditions. They must be short duration, heat tolerant and drought resistant. Short duration varieties can better perform in response to climate change and also enable farmers to increase cropping intensity.
Second, improving agricultural extension services can capacitate farmers to cope with the challenges posed by climate change as they are unaware of the mitigation and adaptation measures that should be implemented at the farm level. Right now, even progressive farmers lack information about climate smart agricultural technologies and practices.
A list of relevant technologies and agronomic practices need to be chalked out and prioritised with respect to cost-benefit analysis and their impact on food security. Information and communication technology- enabled extension services can aid in transfer of such technical know-how to farmers effectively.
Third, in the short term, food availability can be increased by reducing high harvest and post-harvest losses, which are presently in the range of 10–20pc in the wheat and rice sector. Around 8pc reduction in losses can offset the total wheat import of Pakistan, which is equal to almost two million tonnes.
Use of good quality mini combine harvester (for wheat) and half feed harvester (for rice), training of farmers, and improved grain storage practices can help in such a reduction.
However, lack of financial resources, human and institutional capacity of the concerned government departments and motivation of their employees are the real challenges which require out of the box solutions.
Mr Wattoo is a farmer and consultant in the social sector and Ms Mehmood is a researcher in forestry and environmental sciences
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 26th, 2022