Pakistan is the fifth largest populated country in the world, with 233 million people and a population growth rate of two per cent. Wheat is the main staple food in the country, with a per capita consumption of 125kg annually, higher than the neighbouring countries.

Wheat productivity has stagnated over the past few years, with only a 10pc increase since the last decade. This year, wheat production is estimated at 26.81 million tonnes against the target of 28.4m tonnes. The area under wheat cultivation was reduced from 9.3m hectares to 9.1m hectares due to an increase in canola cultivation.

The 2022 devastating floods also affected Sindh, Balochistan, and South Punjab wheat sowing. Punjab is the main wheat producer, with 21m tonnes, and the procurement target of the government of Punjab is 4.5m tonnes.

Due to stagnant yield and steadily increased demand for wheat, the country became a net importer from being an exporter of surplus wheat in the past. Wheat imports are forecasted to reach 2.6m tonnes to meet domestic requirements.

Compared to increasing yields, post-harvest management is a more resource-efficient way to improve food availability without additional agricultural inputs

There is a difference between the crop yields of an average farmer and a progressive farmer. Access and availability of quality seed is one of the main hindrances to low yields.

The wheat supply chain in Pakistan can be safeguarded firstly by an increase in average production and, secondly, by a decrease in post-harvest losses. Currently, the average yield of wheat is around three tonnes per hectare, substantially lower than in comparable countries.

This increase in yield can be materialised through investment in research, use of machinery for sowing, harvesting, and threshing, use of certified seed and timely application of irrigation and balanced fertiliser. Sowing of recommended seed cultivars in a particular region is crucial because only that cultivar can produce optimum yield, keeping in view the elements of climate.

Undoubtedly, increasing yield is very important to feed the increasing population; however, post-harvest management is a more resource-efficient way to improve food availability without additional agricultural inputs.

In Pakistan, harvesting losses are at about 10-20pc because of outdated combined harvesters. This amounts to 2m tonnes of annual wheat loss, equal to Rs100-200 billion loss to farmers, increasing imports by $1.52 bn.

The Pakistan Engineering Development Board should provide registration and fitness certificates for combine harvesters.

At 10-15pc, post-harvest losses during storage are a big concern as they translate to 4.02m tonnes in volume, worth $1.3bn, along with the wastage of 1.36m hectares of land and inputs.

Improper storage, along with abstemious rainfall and the monsoon season, causes additional havoc in granaries. About 50-60pc of wheat is marketed, and farmers hold the remaining for their own consumption.

There is also a large scope to reduce on-farm and off-farm losses through improved harvesting, bulk handling, and storage in modern silos. Construction and upgradation of storehouses are essential to minimise these storage losses.

Elevated relative humidity, exacerbated by subsequent high temperatures during storage practices, is the primary catalyst for grain degradation, particularly in seeds. Wheat seed requires about 12pc moisture content and 65pc relative humidity for safe storage. The seed moisture content of greater than 14pc promotes mould attack, resulting in aflatoxin contamination of stored products.

The presence of aflatoxin in grain poses a major risk for humans, especially children, as it can have immunosuppressive, mutagenic and carcinogenic effects. Climatic shifts in Pakistani terrain have led agricultural think tanks to introduce cost-effective improved storage facilities in the form of hermetic bags and mini-hermetic drums, usually termed ‘Anaji drum’ developed by The University of Agriculture, Faisalabad (UAF).

One hermetic bag is sufficient to preserve the quality of a 50kg wheat seed for one acre of land during seasonal storage. While the Anaji drum can store 3 to 4 maunds of wheat grains without fumigation, two drums are sufficient for five family members to utilise wheat grains for a year.

Hermetic storage prevents both moisture and oxygen and thus reduces storage losses. Within the context of the inflation-stricken Pakistani diaspora, these enhanced storage technologies demonstrate cost-effectiveness and pose no threat to the climate.

Last year, floods in the country posed an unprecedented climate catastrophe affecting around 33m people. Apart from human and livestock losses, wheat seed and grain stored in the houses of poor farmers were destroyed.

Wheat is the main food item and source of income for small farmers. They faced severe shortages of wheat seed during the sowing season because of having no buying power to purchase seeds and fertilisers due to damage to their standing crops in the flood.

At harvest time, hermetic bags and drums were distributed among the farmers of flood-affected areas to preserve their seeds for the next growing season. To preserve the quality of seed in flood-affected areas, a viable approach is using hermetic seed storage technology to minimise post-harvest losses during the monsoon/rainy season. This technology is being practised in more than 80 countries.

This low-cost technology would enable the farmers to preserve seed and food commodities throughout the season without insect infestation, and farmers would have the choice to sell their products when the price is high in the market.

This could be accomplished with the support of public and private seed sectors and non-governmental organisations to train small farmers to preserve their food commodities and seeds from insect attacks in normal situations and flood conditions. This small effort will be helpful to farmers for the revival of wheat in the flood zone.

The writer is an Associate Professor/Focal Person of the Seed Science and Technology Programme at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 29th, 2023

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