To begin with, we must acknowledge two indisputable facts that encompass our daily diet and Pakistan’s agricultural landscape.

First, fruits are an invaluable source of essential vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants. However, in Pakistan, the current availability of fruits and vegetables is around 100 grams and 53 grams per capita per day, respectively. This underscores the need for policy intervention to enhance access, affordability, and consumption.

Second, Pakistan’s diverse agro-climatic conditions support cultivating a wide variety of fruits, ranging from temperate to subtropical and tropical. In addition, fertile soil, diverse topography, and good-quality groundwater and canal water offer conducive conditions for cultivating 29 types of fruits.

The Ministry of National Food Security and Research’s Fruits, Vegetables, and Condiments Statistics indicate that over the last ten years, despite such enabling factors, the total area cropped under fruits has shrunk from 0.8 million hectares in the fiscal year 2012-2013 to 0.7m hectares in FY23, reflecting a staggering 10.9 per cent decrease.

Cultivation declines as farmers favour high-return field crops over fruits

Over the stated period, the areas cultivated for citrus and mango — the top two fruits of Pakistan — have experienced a decline of 19.5pc and 9.3pc, respectively. Likewise, the apple-growing area has seen a reduction of 27pc, while the pomegranate area has decreased by 43pc, guava by 18pc, plum by 13pc, apricot by 49pc, and almond by 26pc.

Recent statistics from the last five years (2018-2023) also indicate a declining trend in the area cropped for dates — the country’s third largest fruit by area. The exceptions to this downward trend are bananas, grapes, and melons, which have short to medium gestation periods.

The decline in the fruit-growing area can be attributed to a range of factors, including the encroachment of housing colonies upon fertile agricultural land and fruit orchards, diminished rainfall due to climate change in certain areas of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and reduced availability of irrigation water.

Additionally, in recent years, factors such as increased cropping intensity, higher crop yields, and improved crop prices have collectively enhanced the profitability of agronomic crops, incentivising farmers to replace fruit orchards with field crops.

Adding to the challenge, the burgeoning population has led to land fragmentation across generations. Small orchards, typically less than 10 acres in size, often struggle to remain economically viable due to limited market access for their produce, especially when located outside the major fruit-growing clusters.

What’s amazing is, despite the substantial reduction in fruit-growing area, the country’s fruit production increased from 6.5m tonnes in FY13 to 8.7m tonnes in FY23 — a phenomenal rise of 34pc.

However, setting aside concerns regarding the reliability and authenticity of the government statistics, the possible explanation for this surge can be attributed to two factors.

Firstly, there has been a phenomenal increase in yields. For instance, statistics indicate that apple yields have increased from 5.4 tonnes per hectare in FY13 to 10.4 tonnes per hectare in FY23 — an impressive but somewhat unbelievable increase of around 93pc. Similarly, citrus, pomegranate, guava, and apricot have experienced incredible yield increases of 38pc, 67pc, 100pc, and 123pc, respectively.

Secondly, melons and bananas have seen a remarkable increase in their area and production. Interestingly, while the area under melon cultivation has increased by 33pc, the production has skyrocketed by a remarkable 230pc — constituting around 22pc of the country’s total fruit production. Likewise, banana cultivation has witnessed a 46pc increase in area and a staggering 178pc rise in production over the past decade.

The crux of the problem is that orchard farmers face dwindling financial returns compared to alternative crops. Without an increase in these returns, all efforts to persuade farmers to prioritise fruit cultivation will likely be in vain, especially for fruits with a long gestation period.

Production cost needs to be reduced by improving the effectiveness and efficiency of inputs through technology upgrades, farmers’ training, and better-quality extension service. Given the frequent watering requirements of fruit orchards and price hikes in diesel and electricity, significant reductions in production costs can be achieved by providing a one-time subsidy for solar-powered tube wells and high-efficiency irrigation solutions, irrespective of orchard size.

Thus far, our primary focus has largely been increasing yields and enhancing fruit quality, both of which have their own merits. However, in the present landscape, high losses occurring at production, harvests, and post-harvest stages, to the tune of around 40pc to 50pc, have become increasingly paramount. Therefore, there exists a pressing need to increase net yield — total yield after accounting for these losses — by improving orchard management practices and upgrading harvest and post-harvest technologies. After all, farmers will be the ultimate beneficiary of a reduction in such losses.

There is a pressing need to narrow the gap between farm gate values and retail prices. During periods of market oversupply, fruit prices often plummet to levels that fail to cover even the harvesting and packaging costs incurred by the farmer. Despite this, retail prices in cities remain high, benefiting multiple intermediaries the most.

In conclusion, the multi-dimensional challenge of shrinking fruit-growing areas requires targeted interventions at policy and operational levels. However, despite the rollout of numerous horticulture development projects at the federal and provincial levels during previous years, the continued decline in area signals an urgent need for a revaluation of our conventional approaches.

Khalid Wattoo is a farmer and a development professional, and Dr Waqar Ahmad is a former Associate Professor at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 22nd, 2024

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