Dal is a humble meal. Be it the big boss man opting for a light meal in his air-conditioned office or his guard sweating in boots with a gun on his back, dal is ubiquitous across the country.
Repeated calls for imported substitution and increased localisation of mobiles and cars seem to overlook that almost every bite consumed by any Pakistani is made of imported goods. Whether pulses, palm oil, condiments, spices or wheat for roti, Pakistan highly depends on its imports.
There have been times when some varieties of dal were priced higher than chicken. For example, at one point in 2016, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar famously advised the country to eat chicken instead of lentils — at that time, mash daal was selling at Rs260 per kg, whereas chicken was at Rs200 per kg. Since then, prices have roughly doubled, with chicken at Rs400 per kg last month and Mash daal at Rs428 per kg, as per data by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.
Back in the day, Pakistan’s domestic production outstripped imports. In 2007, locally grown pulses comprised 73pc of total production, but the share has gone as low as 27pc in 2021. Pakistan is the second largest importer of pulses in Asia.
Pulses are smart crops, both for humans and the cropping system, as they provide protein, minerals, vitamins, and fibre for the human diet and nitrogen to the soil and contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity, according to an article in the International Journal of Plant Production.
So if it is good to eat and good to grow, why can’t Pakistan grow its own dal?
The problems are the same as the ones faced across the agriculture sector. There is a lack of innovative crop improvement programmes and seeds distribution systems. Currently, about 80pc of the pulses are cultivated from the farmers’ own saved seeds, as per the article.
Climatic conditions, salinity, pests, diseases, lack of crop-specific farm machinery, post-harvest losses and marketing issues, the same long list of ails, continue pushing Pakistan towards import dependency on food items.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 29th, 2023