Climate change leads to extreme weather events, causing severe droughts and floods, making water availability less predictable. The situation is problematic for agriculture as it accounts for over 90 per cent of Pakistan’s water.

At the start of the Kharif season, Punjab and Sindh faced a water shortage, and several canals operated on alternating water distribution (water rotation). As the water crisis increases, there is a dire need to build the resilience of the country’s agriculture production system against the adverse effects of climate change.

In this context, a sharp increase in the area of sesame (sesamum) — an oil seed crop, during the last four years in Punjab (Pakistan), is an interesting case study for anyone interested in examining the role of policy and market forces for crop switching, which is an effective adaptation strategy to climate change and water scarcity.

Sesame is one of the most drought-resistant crops. Its water requirement is insignificant, and just two to three light irrigation or rains are considered enough to get a good crop. On the other hand, rice is a highly water-intensive crop grown on a large scale in Pakistan.

Opting for the sesame crop over rice is a climate change adaption strategy for resource-poor farmers in our water-scarce country

The findings of several research papers reveal that, on average, 2,500- 5,000 litres of water is used across Asia to produce one kilogram of rough rice. These numbers indicate significant water consumption given the water situation amidst climate change.

Hence, sesame has good potential to replace some areas of rice crops to alleviate growing water scarcity, which is one of the major challenges of the 21st century.

Sesame was once considered a good fit for rain-fed and marginal lands plagued by water scarcity. In addition, financial returns on the crop were also insignificant to attract the attention of farmers of fertile irrigated lands of Punjab, who had many options to choose from.

But with the massive depreciation of the Pakistani rupee in the last four years and skyrocketing edible oil prices in the international markets, its price in the local market has increased almost three times, from Rs4,500 to Rs12,000 per maund (40kg).

This jump in price resulted in increased profit margins for farmers. Thus, many farmers now prefer sesame over cotton, autumn maise, rice, and other Kharif crops, and its area is increasing in Central and South Punjab (Sahiwal, Faisalabad, Multan, DG Khan, Bahawalpur divisions).

Crop Reporting Services (Agriculture Department Punjab) reveals that the total sesame crop area (irrigated and non-irrigated) in Punjab has increased by 45pc in just the last two years, from 2019-20 to 2021-2022. Regarding irrigated land only, the increase in crop area is even greater, close to 60pc.

It is interesting to note that such considerable crop switching primarily takes place for price advantages and greater financial return. However, responding to water scarcity is also a consideration.

The shift is not policy-driven but market-driven. In 2019, the Government of Punjab announced a very nominal subsidy of Rs 2,000 per acre to promote the sesame crop. However, the decision of the majority of farmers was not influenced by this small amount or any farm advisory services delivered by the government. Instead, financial gains with low cost of production have been the real underlying factors.

Smallholder farmers are mostly resource-poor. They tend to prefer crops that need fewer inputs, require simple and easy agricultural operations, and have relatively low risk in terms of yield and market price.

Sesame is an ideal crop for resource-poor farmers who don’t have the financial resources to buy expensive agricultural inputs such as fertiliser, diesel, pesticide, and electricity, whose prices are at record high levels.

Sesame matures in just 100-110 days and its fertiliser requirement, especially urea (nitrogen), is very low. Required agricultural practices are also simple. Moreover, it is not susceptible to severe pest and disease attacks that plague cotton, rice and maise crops.

The sesame crop’s only downside is its waterlogging sensitivity; it must be grown on well-drained soils.

Some important implications of crop switching must be considered before formulating a policy to decrease the area of some crops in favour of others. Pakistan exported around 4.877 million tonnes of rice in 2021-2022. As rice production is surplus in the country, partial replacement of rice area with sesame will not threaten national food security.

However, rice exports contribute over $2.5 billion (FY22) in foreign exchange. On the other hand, Pakistan’s export of sesame seeds has also increased rapidly from 24,000 to 137,000 tonnes in quantity, from Rs3.589bn to Rs32.3bn in value in just the last four years, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. Currently, Pakistan has just a 6pc share of the global export market, which has good potential to be increased further.

We should not forget that rice cultivation enormously contributes to methane and nitrous oxide (greenhouse gases) emissions. It grows mostly in flooded fields, creating conducive conditions for microorganisms/bacteria that emit methane gas. Therefore, reducing the area under rice is also advisable for reducing greenhouse gases and mitigating climate change.

Pakistan’s agriculture sector has several projects underway to improve water conservation and water use efficiency. To save water, “National Water Policy 2018” and “National Climate Change Policy 2021” speak about encouraging less water-intensive varieties of major crops, but these interventions and policy documents are silent on crop switching — from water-intensive crops to crops that need less water.

Khalid Wattoo is a farmer and consultant in the social sector.

Sara Mehmood is a researcher in forestry and environmental sciences.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 3rd, 2022

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