It is ironic that the sector that provides livelihood to more than 40 per cent of the country’s workforce is so neglected. The contribution of agriculture is brushed aside by quoting just 22pc-23pc as its contribution to GDP.

Regardless of the debate on the authenticity of the figures, this percentage of 22pc-23pc cannot be seen in isolation as agriculture provides inputs to various other sectors like manufacturing, transport, storage, wholesale and retail trade etc.

A country’s economy is just like a book. It has to be read and analysed as a harmonised system where every sector is viewed holistically, and its linkages with the overall economy must be acknowledged.

More than 200 agricultural research institutions in the country are duly registered, ranging from agricultural universities to agricultural/livestock research institutions. However, the actual output of these institutions is minimal.

The institutes are supposed to be the avenues of knowledge creation, but name any agricultural institute in Pakistan, and its contribution to agricultural growth and sustainability is yet to be witnessed.

There is also an issue of scope limitation of these institutions because of less research-oriented funding. The agricultural institutes’ funding is restricted to salaries and pensions. Research grants are still viewed as novel ideas.

There is an immense waste of resources owing to a lack of coordination between the institutions. For example, if institute(s) in Sindh are researching on say some synthesised fertiliser, one must consider the chances that some institute(s) in Punjab are researching the same synthesised fertiliser.

Agricultural mechanisation is yet another unfulfilled dream. How can we keep capitalising on the green revolution of the 1960s, as that revolution was also a product of mechanised seeds and improved machinery?

Unfortunately, Pakistan has not yet produced a single tech-based seed variety that can transform the landscape of agricultural productivity. Pakistan still relies on imported tech-based synthetic seeds.

Agricultural financing is the key to improved productivity, provided the financing is provided to the real farmer with ease and speed. There is a myth about agricultural loans being provided by financial institutions in Pakistan. As it’s said, the devil lies in details; the agricultural loan, in general parlance and official discussions, mainly refers to the entire en-block financing by the banks.

In fact, a big chunk of that agricultural loan is passed on by the commercial banks to the provincial and federal food departments/authorities for the procurement of wheat. How can we equate the loan used by the state in purchasing wheat crops as a loan advanced to poor farmers for improving agricultural productivity?

The subsidy on fertiliser is another paradox. In Pakistan, the state grants subsidies on fertiliser to reduce the cost of agricultural production, but in effect, this subsidy is enjoyed by the corporate fertiliser manufacturing entities.

The state’s expense on fertiliser subsidy actually profits the fertiliser manufacturer at the altar of the farmer, as evidenced by the fertiliser crisis over the last couple of years.

Unfortunately, every sector under Pakistan’s regulatory regime performs at a lesser scale than private sectors. Justifications of equity and social protection aside, this is the reality. See the commodities with no regulation (like rice, maize in crops and poultry in livestock), their productivity sustainably increases every year (with few exceptions) without state intervention.

Another menace is climate change. The 2022 floods devastated the majority of crops in Sindh, Balochistan and Southern Punjab. Although the loss of staple crops like wheat and rice is for one year/maybe one crop season, but the orchards devastated by flood need years to recoup their productivity.

The date palm trees belt in Upper Sindh and South Punjab, which has historically been a source of earning foreign exchange through exports, is still recovering from the unprecedented devastation of the 2022 floods.

Unlike Pakistan, our eastern neighbour has invested heavily in agriculture. The Indian Punjab, though smaller in size, has higher agricultural productivity than Pakistan’s Punjab. Per hectare wheat yield is five tonnes in Indian Punjab against three tonnes in Pakistan’s Punjab when both regions face the same climatic conditions and historical legacy.

Moreover, agriculture everywhere in the world has linkages backward and forward, ie agriculture supports the industry (textile, sports, food, etc) as well as the service sector (transport, packaging, wholesale/retail trade of commodities).

Conversely, agriculture also gets boosted by the industrial and service sectors. For example, when industrial productivity increases, it provides employment avenues, and the family unit’s income increases, so now the family can spend more on agricultural land. In other words, the inflow of income in an agricultural family by virtue of industrial employment removes the bottlenecks/constraints of that family. They can now invest more (physically and financially) in agriculture to increase productivity.

The above situation demands thorough introspection. Until our agricultural sector (including livestock and dairy) is revamped, our economy cannot perform sustainably. Our ideology of defining agriculture as just a bread basket for the country needs to be replaced with identifying agriculture as an economic powerhouse of the country.

The writer is a civil servant

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 26th, 2024

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