Higher cropping intensity to ensure food security

Published May 22, 2023
A farmer harvests wheat crops in a field in Peshawar. —AFP/File
A farmer harvests wheat crops in a field in Peshawar. —AFP/File

Pakistan’s population is growing at a rate of over 4.5 million a year, which is nearly equivalent to or greater than the population of several countries. In absolute terms, worldwide, Pakistan’s annual number of new births is extremely high, surpassed only by India, China, and Nigeria. Due to this population explosion, the country’s per capita availability of arable land has decreased from 0.65 hectares in 1961 to just 0.14 hectares in 2020.

The situation is alarming, as Pakistan has to ensure national food security with such a limited land base. Essentially, it has three strategic choices to increase food production: expanding crop area (extensification); improving crop yields (intensification); and/or enhancing cropping intensity (number of crops grown per year on the same land). These choices are not mutually exclusive, and any one or more can be pursued simultaneously.

When it comes to expanding the crop area, Pakistan has made some headway, but water availability has been the major limiting factor. There are numerous challenges facing Pakistan’s river water resources, which include uncertain water availability caused by climate change, reduced storage capacity of ageing dams, misplaced priorities of our successive governments in the energy sector, and their lukewarm and wishy-washy response towards constructing new dams.

As a result, Pakistan’s reliance on groundwater increased significantly, which led to the excessive depletion of groundwater reserves. Pakistan is among the few countries where groundwater withdrawals exceed aquifers’ natural recharge/replenishment rate.

The country’s per capita availability of arable land has decreased from 0.65 hectares in 1961 to just 0.14 hectares in 2020

The situation threatens the sustainability of this valuable natural resource, and one of its manifestations is declining water tables in rural areas, which requires increased energy for pumping water.

Despite the expansion of surface and groundwater supplies, millions of hectares remain uncultivated where the groundwater quality is unfit (saline/brackish), which limits the use of tubewells for agricultural farming. Undeniably, such lands will always remain fallow/barren unless canal water supplies are made available.

An alternative option is to improve irrigation water efficiency by implementing high-efficiency irrigation solutions at the farm level. This would allow for a greater area to be cultivated by optimising the available water resources. Yet, these solutions require substantial capital investment and the upskilling of farmers and farm workers.

Improving crop yields to increase food production has been the most common approach employed by countries like Pakistan, constrained by limited land and inadequate water resources.

Over the past decades, Pakistan has made efforts, although not coherently and systematically, to enhance crop yields through increased use of high-yielding seed varieties, greater fertiliser applications, better pest and weed control, and improved access to public and private agricultural extension services.

Unfortunately, the increase in crop yields has not kept pace with the population growth, and as a result, Pakistan is still struggling to achieve food self-sufficiency. Consequently, the country’s food import bill has been rising continuously.

Given this situation, increasing cropping intensity (CI) becomes crucial to enhance food production, as relying solely on expanding crop areas and improving crop yields is insufficient, especially when we consider the encroachment of urbanisation on fertile agricultural lands.

Surprisingly, CI has been largely overlooked in both federal and provincial agricultural policies and strategic plans, which lack specific measures to increase it. Nevertheless, the current CI value stands at 1.59 per cent, well below its potential, and can be substantially increased through two main approaches.

First, global analysis indicates that access to irrigation water has played a significant role in increasing CI. This holds true for Pakistan as well, where CI has steadily risen over the past decades, primarily due to improved access to irrigation water (surface and groundwater).

Nevertheless, in rain-fed or water-scarce regions, only one crop is currently grown per year, which could be increased to two by developing irrigation resources, but as explained above, this is a major challenge.

Second, however, a silver lining is the advent of short-duration varieties of several crops introduced in the past decade. These varieties present a tremendous opportunity to further improve CI in fertile and irrigated areas where most farmers already get two crops in a year.

Such varieties enable a higher CI, from two to three crops, on the same land area with almost the same amount of water farmers already utilise. Therefore, Pakistan should take advantage of this opportunity.

With the introduction of short-duration varieties (requiring less than 110 days) of potato, maize, mung bean, sesame, rice (1509 basmati and hybrid), and other crops, a new cropping system comprising three sequential crops in a year has become operationally viable.

A large number of farmers in many geographic pockets have already adopted the three-crop annual cycle, such as potato-spring maize-rice; wheat-sesame-maize; wheat-mung-maize; wheat-sorghum (fodder)-maize/rice, etc.

In addition to such sequential cropping, intercropping and relay cropping are some other viable approaches to increase CI, leading to greater food production without expanding crop area and/or developing additional water resources.

However, growing higher CI can pose environmental and soil health risks, which are location-, crop-, and management-specific. It also requires a relatively higher degree of mechanisation to complete crop harvesting and planting/sowing operations within a short timeframe. Furthermore, upskilling farmers and farm workers is necessary to increase productivity and align their skills with higher CI.

That being said, there is a significant need for a detailed countrywide study to collect spatially explicit information on the CI gap (both potential and actual CI) of all croplands. This study can help formulate strategies to bridge this gap, considering the country’s land resources, available water resources, time requirements for planting and harvesting operations of two- and three-crop annual cycles, and most importantly, the resources available to farmers.

Lastly, the availability of adequate funds to roll out CI-focused interventions, particularly in agricultural research to develop short-duration varieties, could be a challenge.

Khalid Wattoo is a farmer and a development professional

Rahema Hasan is a political economist and graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 22nd, 2023

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