Pakistan is an agrarian country blessed with a vast natural base encompassing a variety of climatic and ecological zones suitable for producing most of the fruits, vegetables and crops in the world. Unfortunately, its agriculture sector has seen erratic progress during the last seven or so decades.
Though production of almost all crops — grains, fruit, vegetables — increased manifold over time, the performance lags behind what other countries, particularly China and India in the region, achieved during the period. A matter of concern is that yield of different crops is stagnant, if not on the decline, in Pakistan during the last one and half decades, when farming in the neighbouring countries grew by leaps and bounds.
Some quarters believe that the country needs to change its agriculture sector governance model, introduce better seeds for all crops, and create a customised cooperative system for farmers’ survival and make farming viable in the shortest possible time.
“Ours is perhaps the only major agrarian country in the world that doesn’t have its own seeds. And if seeds are available, then their quality and productivity are too poor to reap a reasonable harvest and keep the production cost at the minimum,” regrets Jawed Salim Qureshi, an electrical engineer-turned-agriculturist. “China harvests around 100 maunds per acre of both cotton and wheat crops, whereas our average production is between 30 and 35 maunds per acre.”
Four decades ago, Indian companies were allowed to import seeds for eight years, after which they had to develop them locally or leave the country, which is why today India exports seeds whereas Pakistan is still dependent on imports
He does not buy the argument that our environment is no longer suitable for sowing certain crops, especially cotton, and asserts that we should rather accept our failure in developing seed varieties resilient to climate change. “In fact, under the influence of ‘import mafia’ developing seed varieties has never been our priority though our (agricultural) scientists are no less than their counterparts in the neighbouring countries.”
India decided over four decades ago that every seed company may import seeds, but for eight years and then it will have to develop the seed locally or leave the country. Today, India is exporting its seeds to the whole world. But such a policy has never been introduced in Pakistan, and the result is that the country is dependent on the import of seeds for all major and minor crops, except wheat.
Mr Qureshi, who resigned from a government job to establish his own agro-business majoring in pesticides and seed development in the 1990s, says either the potential of local agricultural scientists has not been utilised or the focus of research is flawed.
“The scientists are not affiliated with the industry or market and don’t know market demands. Who will tell them? The industry. Wherever agriculture has been developed, whether in China, Europe, the US or Australia, there was first an alliance between academia and industry. The industry gives academia an idea of what to develop, which it does, and the industry then markets that.”
Bookshelves after bookshelves in the libraries of universities are filled with post-doctoral theses with no product, he says, stressing that research and development should be converted into research and product development. “Research has zero value for the country if it does not lead to the development of a product.
“The only secret behind China’s progress is the alliance between industry and academia. In 1989, China produced only 3pc of its pesticide requirement. Today, it is not only meeting its cent per cent needs but also exporting pesticides to the world. Chinese universities research only in fields where the industry is interested, which sponsors all the academic scholarships.”
He sees cooperative farming as the foundation of agriculture, arguing that all those countries that progressed through agriculture adopted this system. “It was introduced here as well but was unsuccessful because of big landlords. It should be reintroduced with the condition that holders of more than 30 acres of land do corporate farming and the rest do cooperative farming.”
The government allocates around Rs100 billion in funds for the agriculture sector each year. If this amount is diverted towards cooperatives, each unit will get funds of Rs10-100 million as a loan with a plan for area-specific agriculture, which could work wonders, he suggests. Academia should be engaged in resolving issues of the respective area of each cooperative unit.
No plan, however, will be successful until the bureaucracy-run sectoral governance model is in force as it has been for the last 75 years. “Put this failed model aside as the bureaucrats may be good for other assignments but not for this job. Bring in people to the decision-making offices that understand farming. The (departmental) secretary should be an encyclopedia of agriculture, needing no guidance from outside. Such a person will and can introduce a model that will work for the country,” says Mr Qureshi.
These agriculture expert decision-makers should be posted with the direction that they set their achievement targets for six months on their own and with a clear vision of where the sector would stand at the expiry of this six-month term. He insists that the proposed system should be tried for at least a year and claims that the required legal framework is already there as former prime minister late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had appointed special secretaries to various departments during his tenure under the law.
To enhance the income of farmers in a short time and without much expense, he proposes promoting oilseed plantations. As oilseeds sowing shares season with wheat, the per acre yield of the latter may be increased by five to 10 per cent only through convincing farmers to adopt good agriculture practices, he claims. This will spare at least 3m acres of land from wheat for oilseeds without compromising on national food security, he says.
“Canola seed gives 30 maunds per acre yield using one bag each of urea and di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) and three watering. Without compost, it may give 25 maunds. The seed also needs no herbicide or pesticide. Moreover, if sown in October, it may not be attacked by tela or aphids, which appear in March, as by that time the crop matures and is ready for harvesting. This will help cut the $6.2 billion edible oil import bill.”
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 21st, 2022