Under a $300 million project called ‘Promotion of Olive Cultivation for Economic Development and Poverty Alleviation,’ Italy would help Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, FATA and Balochistan to grow olive plants.
To be supervised by Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), experts from Barrani Agriculture Research Institute would help execute the project. Though the soil type, ranges of temperature and amount of rainfall suits olive production in Pakistan, policymakers did not make any move earlier to capitalise on the potential, despite the edible oil import bill swelling by the year and hitting $2.6 billion last year.
The realisation should also have come from the amount of efforts Pakistaini scientists have made for identifying areas suitable for olive production. A host of institutions, including Small and Medium Enterprise Development Authority (SMEDA), PARC, BARI and Punjab Agriculture Marketing Company (PAMCO) had identified the potential, areas and the road map for the olive production in the country.
One hopes that the project proves the old maxim “it is never too late” and helps reduce and finally eliminate the huge import bill.
The agriculture scientists have identified areas for olive growing in Sialkot, Narowal, Gujrat, Jehlum, Chakwal, Attock, Khushab, Faisalabad, Kasur, Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The spread of the cities show that entire central and upper Punjab is suitable for olive production.
The barrani belt alone comprising over 3.1 million hectares, is 33 per cent more than the entire Spanish acreage (around two million hectares) under olive and Spain is one of three biggest producers in the world.
This only shows the potential the country has.
In addition to this potential, the scientists in Punjab have collected around 52 olive genes that cover the entire range available in the world, including ones from Spain, Italy, Turkey, Tunisia, Palestine, Syria and Jordan.
They have also identified suitable ecological zones for each variety, and have got two of them formally approved (zatoon-I, II) from Federal Seed Certifications. In the last few months, 25 nurseries owners have been trained for production and recently Olive Day for Farmers was also observed.
The project, in its present form, would only cover 300 hectares in Punjab – creating only a model for others to follow. The current capacity of the BARI is only 3,000 to 4,000 plants a year, which if super high-density plantation is considered as the baseline, would cover only four to five acres.
Though Punjab would not attempt that high density and plant only 120 plants an acres, the BARI capacity shows how much area it has to cover.
Turkey alone creates and plants one million plants a year. The Punjab government has to learn olive plantation from the Turks apart from its current preference for roads and bridges.
Another constraint is plantation technology, which Punjab can remove with additional resource diversion. The current cutting technology only has 40 per cent success ratio, even after careful tendering of keeping it at 22 degree Celsius and 80 per cent humidity.
It can be shifted to more productive, what is known as tip-technology. All these options are available, but only with a sustained effort.
The Punjab Government had already designated its barrani region as an ‘Olive Area’ last year.
However, it is still to come up with medium- and long-term action plan for the crop. How much money it would spend for promotion of olive? After all, it takes almost five years before the plants start yielding produce and given the scale of poverty in these areas, farmers can hardly wait that long.
One way to promote olive is announcing a buyback arrangement so that farmers know that they would not be risking next five years’ labour for official experiment.
Apart from buyback arrangements, investment in processing and value-addition should also be part of the olive planning.
Punjab should firm up contours of ‘Olive Policy’ to achieve better and productive outcome.
For the last one year, the provincial government is sitting on a local project, which its own scientists suggested. It needs to be dusted off for the parallel execution so that local efforts quickly takeover once the Italians pack off.
Apart from olive, Punjab should also develop other edible oil crops. Most of brassica crops — sunflower and canola — are sown in Rabi and compete with wheat and gram for space.
But better planning for these crops can easily spare the area. There are a number of wheat seeds available in the market that could double the average yield. New ones can also be developed with right kind of planning and research. It is a matter of planning and promotion backed by a sound action plan.