Major crops need more attention

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Achievements in the major crops sector can help politicians earn public confidence. One of its reasons is that the economy’s reliance on major crops is more evident than elsewhere.

When a new government comes in, the major crops not only get some immediate policy attention but also become a subject of sharper scrutiny by the opposition parties.

However, despite tall claims about the revival of agriculture, governments manage to address key issues facing the major crops only partly. The important sub-sector of agriculture continues to suffer from several structural problems.

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The federal government has recently unveiled an agriculture promotion package of Rs82 billion. This is part of an overall Rs200bn agriculture development plan that the federal and provincial governments will be implementing in the next three years, according to Minister of National Food Security and Research Sahibzada Mehbub Sultan.

Part of the plan aims at boosting yields of the major crops, minimising their post-harvest and storage losses and exploiting their full potential for exports and local needs.

Pakistan produces five major crops: cotton, sugar cane, wheat, rice and maize. In the past 10 years, lots of development plans focused on boosting their per-hectare yields, but the results are not very encouraging. The yield of cotton, for example, has increased from an estimated 641 kilograms per hectare in 2008 to 726kg per hectare in 2018 — a rise of just 13 per cent over 10 years, according to statistics compiled by the US Department of Agriculture.

We must focus on boosting per-hectare yields, cutting pre- and post-harvest losses and promoting the efficient use of water

That is why local cotton output fails to meet demand and we often have to import it. Cotton imports continue devouring precious foreign exchange even now when the country is facing a serious balance-of-payments problem.

Also Read: Water scarcity hits major crops in Balochistan

The per-hectare yields of wheat and rice have depicted a nominal increase, although the yields of maize and sugar cane have shown some encouraging growth rates over the last decade, data compiled by the Ministry of National Food Security and Research shows.

More disturbing is the fact that the yield gap — or the gap between the global average of per-hectare yields and the yields of the crops being grown in Pakistan — remains high. This weakness is more pronounced in the case of our minor crops like pulses and oilseeds.

Pakistan’s balance-of-payments situation is precarious. Fixing of this situation requires fiscal austerity. That limits the government’s ability to offer too many or too large cash incentives to farmers for boosting yields or expanding the total arable land. And even if this option is exercised, the shortage of irrigation water remains a big problem.

Tackling water woes through big dams will take years even if we factor in Chinese help under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the ongoing drive to raise donations from the public for these dams.

So we are left with this option: we have to focus on boosting per-hectare yields, cutting pre- and post-harvest losses of the major crops and promoting the economisation of water uses. That is something the designers of the Rs82bn package realise, officials claim.

Part of this package (Rs4bn) is meant for promoting farm mechanisation to reduce pre- and post-harvest losses and ensuring disciplined distribution of certified seeds to increase per-hectare yields. The Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) will get another Rs4bn out of this package to develop crop seeds that can give higher yields and be grown with minimum water, they add.

The largest chunk of Rs82bn — ie Rs68.6bn — has been earmarked for increasing water efficiency across the country through the lining of water courses, construction of small and mini dams in barani (rain-fed) areas and water conservation projects.

If these measures to improve water supplies really work, then a decline in the output of the key crops can be prevented, especially in Sindh and Balochistan where crops are suffering from a shortage of water.

Whereas further farm mechanisation can help reduce pre- and post-harvest losses, equally important is the upgrading of storage facilities. How the federal government plans to help the provinces in this area is not known.

In Punjab, some large steel silos were erected on farm fields with the assistance of the World Bank during the PML-N government. But in Sindh, no major progress was made for the want of the required response from the private sector.

How the promised Chinese cooperation in agriculture will lead to improved storage facilities is yet to be seen. Lack of proper storage facilities led to huge losses of wheat in recent years. Rotten wheat had to be sold at throwaway prices to the poultry feed industry.

Similarly, due to improper storage, sucrose content of sugar cane reportedly reduced in various districts in Sindh and Punjab last year when the miller-grower tussle led to delayed cane crushing.

When we produce more wheat or sugar cane in a particular year — and for some years we have been doing this — we get the opportunity to export it and earn sizable foreign exchange. So ensuring the maximum output of these crops and keeping wheat grains fresh and sucrose content of sugar cane intact are also important from the point of view of the external account management.

In the case of rice, the top foreign exchange earner in the food export group, water shortages in general and in rain-fed areas in particular impede fuller exploitation of production prospects. In fact, the output of our prized basmati varieties has been in decline — a fact also highlighted in a recent Asian Development Bank report.

For boosting the output of the paddy crop, it is important to introduce varieties that grow with less water and encourage farmers to use those means of cultivation that rely on an efficient use of water. In the past few years, some efforts were made in both areas that supported growth in wheat and non-basmati rice production. But there is a need for further augmenting and expanding those efforts.

Inter-provincial movement of grains is also an important factor. Going forward, it will become a greater challenge if coordination between Punjab and Sindh remains less than ideal.

The federal government has promised faster development of grain markets closer to farm fields and the introduction of

real-time price discovery mechanism for farmers. Its early implementation is crucial for proper projections of the major crops, timely announcement of support prices and disciplining cultivation patterns. — MA

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 24th, 2018

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