Crop concerns

Published March 27, 2023

AFTER last year’s heatwave that caused wheat grains to shrink significantly, the ongoing wet spell in Punjab and elsewhere is to be welcomed. It will prove salutary for the upcoming wheat harvest, especially in the rain-fed regions. However, farmers in some districts are likely to suffer unexpected losses due to strong winds and hail that have accompanied the heavy rains over the last one week. According to the agriculture department, hailstorm damage to the wheat crop remains confined to 123,000 acres out of 16.041m acres under the staple crop in the province. They are hopeful that the present wet spell will help the grains grow in size and make up for the previous output loss. Nevertheless, farmers, especially those with small holdings, whose fields have been flattened by the hail and winds, must brace themselves for significant financial losses. Many may not be left with enough to buy inputs for the summer crop, and will need government support.

Over the years, the farm sector has proved to be a major factor responsible for Pakistan’s falling economic growth. Its poor performance has retarded industrial growth, affected textile exports and put pressure on the fragile current account. In the last 15 years, agriculture’s real annual growth has been restricted to 2.2pc-2.6pc a year, which is dismal when compared to the expansion in the services and industrial sectors. This is so in spite of the fact that almost two out of three Pakistanis are somehow linked to and depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

Even within the agriculture sector, according to a report by the Pakistan Agriculture Coalition, it is the crops — mainly wheat, maize, cotton, sugarcane and rice — that are holding back its growth. The production of major crops has grown by just 1.1pc for nearly two decades, despite consuming most of the country’s agricultural assets: land, water, labour, etc. There are multiple reasons that can be cited for the decline of crops, including lack of investment, low mechanisation, poor seed technology and varieties, obsolete and bad government policies affecting farmers’ choices, and so on. The impact of climate change in the form of droughts, floods and erratic weather patterns has accelerated this slide in the last one decade or so, and Pakistan remains among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to global warming. The stagnation in farming means that the trade balance will keep worsening while food insecurity and poverty will continue to surge unless the trend is reversed. That will require a change in our decades-old policies, increased use of technology and massive private investment in the value chain. The agriculture sector offers enormous business opportunities to investors. But their participation will remain limited unless the government decides to pull itself out of the supply chain and stops interfering in the market.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2023

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