Making hay of wheat

Published May 24, 2024
The writer heads the media platform loksujag.com.
The writer heads the media platform loksujag.com.

HOW do two working-class village women, meeting for the first time, learn about each other’s state of well-being? Pardon my eavesdropping, but while travelling in rural Punjab in a cramped bus, which featured goats and hens amongst its passengers, I happened to overhear a conversation between two women seated next to me. They shared with each other the details of how they fared in their struggle to ensure a supply of danay and doodh (wheat grain and milk) for their families throughout the year.

This was no small talk. The two stood for all women guardians of the family food; the two commodities they discussed are the main pillars of food security for tens of millions in our country. According to the Household Integrated Economic Survey 2018-19, the combined share of wheat and milk in consumption expenditure on food by all five quintiles, from the poorest to the richest households, is a little more than 41pc.

Farming families fight against many odds to secure these two top food items; among these odds is the most taxing, unforgiving and unpredictable one — the market. Over the last century, our agriculture has transformed from family need-driven subsistence farming to market-oriented commodity production. The relationship with the market, however, has not evolved into a stable, trustworthy bond. Farmers thus vacillate between market logic and a subsistence mindset, while making cropping decisions. Growing wheat exemplifies this.

Nothing can match the contentment that a brimming silo of wheat brings to a farming family. Eighty-four per cent of 8.3 million farming families across Pakistan sow wheat on 28m acres of land in the Rabi season. The average size of wheat farms in Pakistan is 4.1 acres. Broadly speaking, farmers reserve the produce from one acre for home consumption, while the harvest from another acre is paid in kind to farm labourers, and that of the remaining two offered to the market. This is bought and sold to urban and other non-producing consumers. If the sale proceeds of their surplus exceed cash expenses on farm inputs, they are happy as they end up with enough wheat for the family and a mound of hay that serves as fodder for their milch animals for a good part of the year, plus some cash. They are grumpy if their cash income is nominal but find solace in having achieved their food security goal and thus won’t take to the streets.

Nothing can match the contentment that a brimming silo of wheat brings to a farming family.

The Rabi season does not offer many cropping options. And the few available can only be afforded by rich farmers. While the percentage of farms sowing wheat remains above 80 for small and medium farms, it drops to 60pc for the biggest farms.

This ‘supply inelasticity’ is exploited by our policymakers to keep wheat prices suppressed. Cheaper roti at city tandoors makes good headlines and paints the government as pro-poor but hides the fact that it is the rural producer who is being made to pay for it. The support price for wheat had stayed put at Rs1,300 per 40 kilogrammes from 2014 to 2019, discounting inflation and the rise in production costs. Our policymakers sat pretty till it became a full-blown national flour shortage crisis in January 2020.

This policy apathy has found a new rationale in recent times: international market rates. Our farmers are scolded for being old-fashioned, giving a lower yield at a higher cost of production as compared to other countries. This narrative is built by pushing some facts under the rug. The average size of large wheat farms in Australia, a top surplus-producing country, is 11,660 acres, while the average size of the biggest wheat farms in Pakistan is 93 acres. An agriculture census for 2022 counted a total of 97,014 wheat farms in the US, another major wheat exporter. In Russia, the number of farms producing wheat for the market is estimated at just 20,000. The number of wheat farmers in Pakistan is close to 7m. Can we compare our agriculture with these countries?

The policy paradigm, however, blindly follows free market axioms. In 2023, as the global wheat market feared a shortage after the Ukraine war began, wheat prices went through the roof. The government announced an unprecedented 77pc rise in the wheat support price. Farmers responded and the country faced no shortage. Luckily, the fears proved wrong and prices actually slumped before the current season. The government continued with its policy to provide foreign producers a level playing field and filled its strategic godown with cheap imports. Wheat’s current price in the international market is $225 per tonne, translating to Rs2,500 per 40kg.

Crop Reporting Service, a Punjab government institution, has estimated the cost of producing 40kg of wheat for the current season at Rs3,280. If the produce had been bought at the support price of Rs3,900, it would have translated into a monthly income of Rs14,014 for the average four-acre farmer from this six-month crop. (The Punjab government raised the minimum wage for workers from Rs25,000 to Rs32,000 per month in September 2023!) To top it all, these cost estimates are official and fiercely contested by farmers. According to them, land rent and the cost of fertilisers are actually 50pc more than the quoted estimates. The market is hesitant in offering farmers even Rs3,000 per 40kg. Can the government force private buyers to pay farmers a higher rate, while it has bought its own stockpile at a much lower international rate?

Political rhetoric aside, the government has thrown farmers under the free market bus. Farmers’ penchant for food security now faces a huge challenge. There is no way they can surmount it without the government incorporating a food security perspective in its policy.

Annoyed by the noisy protest of hungry farmers outside her palace and on being told that they had no bread, an 18th-century French queen had famously said: ‘let them eat cake’. Two-and-a-half centuries later, one expects policy prescriptions from democratic rulers to be somewhat better. They should have by now realised that even cakes are made of the wheat grown by farmers.

The writer heads the media platform loksujag.com.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2024

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