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Turnaround or stagnation

February 25, 2013

OFFICIALS claim an impressive turnaround in agricultural production in the last five years as the current government’s tenure is about to end.

This is despite reports pointing towards stagnant productivity of wheat in the last 13 years and cotton yield stagnating over the last 20 years.

They say the turnaround became possible because of ‘prudent’ agricultural policies of the present government and as a result the country has graduated from a food deficit to food surplus country. In 2007-08 Pakistan was among the food deficit countries when it had to import not only wheat but even pulses, etc. In 2010, the country harvested for the first time a bumper crop of over 24 million tonnes. Next year, the country again produced a historic bumper wheat crop with a record output of 25.214 million tonnes, and it entered the list of wheat exporting countries.

The turnaround, claim say, is evident from the surge in the output of vital cash crops such as sugarcane and cotton. Besides, the production of wheat increased by 14.5 per cent, rice by 10.7 per cent, sugarcane by 24.8 per cent and cotton by 14.1 per cent during the last five years.

Meanwhile, the State Bank of Pakistan’s annual report 2011-12 on the state of the economy says that despite the floods of August 2011, the agriculture sector grew by 3.1 per cent in fiscal year 2011-12 against 2.4 per cent growth seen in 2010-11.

The livestock sector, which accounts for 55.1 per cent share in agriculture sector, remained the main contributor to the growth followed by major crops. The growth for livestock was four per cent during the FY12, the same as in the previous year.

The main contribution came from major kharif crops. The production of cotton, sugarcane and rice in 2012 improved over the previous year but that of wheat (the main rabi crop) declined during the year. Rise in production owed to improved soil moisture after the floods, and timely availability of water. The extensive use of agricultural inputs such as fertiliser compared to the kharif crop of fiscal year 2011 also enhanced production.

However, Sindh saw 20 per cent reduction in the production of cotton, sugarcane and rice during Kharif season 2012 due to shortage of water and electricity, and increase in urea prices. Farmers failed to sow a larger crop as was planned due to poor infrastructural facilities and increased load shedding, which in rural areas peaked at nearly 20 hours a day. Southern Sindh remained inundated at the time of sowing, while some farmers could not prepare their land for wheat sowing due to late harvesting of the sugarcane crop.

The SBP report says that the water availability has become a major issue for the agriculture sector. In rabi season of 2012, lower winter precipitation and continued low temperature, which reduced glacier melting, led to a decline in river flows. The water situation did not even improve for kharif season in 2013 due to delay in the monsoon rains.

The situation is likely to worsen in the future, as freshwater supplies continue to face mounting demand pressures. In this context, the SBP observes that building water storage facilities and enhancing the available capacity is now more than essential to meet dry season challenges. At the same time, the price of irrigation water needs to be raised to reflect excess demand and the resource cost of water availability.

Fertiliser demand decreased in 2012 mainly due to higher prices and poor prospects of good income from the crop as the prices of cotton, sugarcane and maize fell during the year.

The cost of pesticides, diesel, and seeds also increased substantially, further squeezing growers margins, especially in Sindh, where farmers were already struggling against the second floods in a row. For now, Pakistan’s food supply is adequate for meeting the country’s needs.

Wheat crop needs greater attention of those at the helm of the affairs to achieve accelerated production either by increasing the area under cultivation or by enhancing the productivity per unit area through the adoption of improved production technology.

The wheat confronts a myriad of problems, reducing the yield to a national average of slightly more than an acre per ton. The most intractable of all the problems affecting wheat is weed. About 37 species of harmful weeds grow in wheat fields in different cropping systems. According to SBP, we may witness slight rise in prices of wheat and other staple foods this year which will hurt the poor more.

Production of rice also recorded an increase in the last five years as it stood at 5.563 million tonnes during 2008, which increased to 6.95 million tonnes by 2009. During the year 2010-11, due to flash floods in the country’s crop production witnessed a slight decrease.

Sugarcane production during the year 2008-09 remained at 50.045 million tonnes, which increased to 62.503 million tonnes in 2011-12, showing an increase of over 24 percent.

Cotton crop output, which was recorded at 11.655 million bales in 2007-08, increased by 14.1 per cent during the last five years and reached 13.579 million bales during 2011-12. Since 1991-92, when Pakistan experienced a record production of 12.8 million bales of 170kg each, overall output of cotton crossed this level on just four occasions and that too with a little margin except a bumper crop of 2003-04.

Pakistan is officially expected to produce mere 12.66 million bales in 2012-13, which is even lower than what was achieved 20 years back.

More worryingly, Pakistan’s average crop since 1991-92 is quite low and stands at just about 11 million bales. Moreover, falling productivity shows serious vertical downward trend during the same period.

Official data suggests Pakistan reaped highest per acre yield about two decades back and the country has never been able to cross that mark. Against this declining trend, the demand of local textile industry is stated to be 16 million bales. — Ashfak Bokhari