Wheat, water and woefulness
It has become chic to insist that the key to unlocking Pakistan’s potential lies in agriculture sector. Popular rallying cries include ‘forty percent labour force employment’; ‘rural women empowerment’, and ‘high value, low delta crops’.
The list of federal cabinet members alone who have repeated the ‘agri potential mantra’ in the past year alone begins with minister for MNFS&R, advisor for commerce, finance, the PM himself, ex-finance minister, and even the SBP governor.
Yet, when it comes to turn the mantras into actionable strategy, these fancy visions disappear into thin air. Take last week’s news of Federal Committee on Agriculture’s target for rabi season. The target for wheat has been set at 9.2 million hectares, dashing any hopes for a path-breaking development in Pakistan’s cropping patterns.
Mind you, the target set under the new policy is not at all fanciful. After all, water availability – thanks to heavier than usual precipitation – is expected to be highest in at least past five years.
And with yield at average of last three years of 2.9 tons per hectares (along with appropriate fertilizer application), the output target of 27 million tons should not be out of sight.
But the key variable when it comes to wheat is of course acreage. The crop not only has the largest area under cultivation for both seasons – at more than three times for both rice and cotton, distant second and third – it also takes up over 80 percent of total area sown during the rabi season, with puny share of 22 other crops combining to barely manage the remainder one-fifth.
But what are the alternative choices, one might ask? Rabi season is most suited for a wide variety of crops ranging from pulses such as masoor, gram, to oilseeds such as rapeseed and mustard, soybean, sunflower, castor seed, among a long list of vegetables, condiments, and fruits.
Just past year alone, the country spent over half a billion dollar on import of pulses, in addition to another two billion dollars on import of palm and soybean oil.
Granted, that even a quantum jump of four or five times in soybean cultivation from current levels will not altogether eliminate the reliance on imported edible oil sources.
Nevertheless, if there is any purpose to setting official targets for crop cultivation, it should be massage public policy towards crops that are more desirable.
Setting high target acreages discharges both the government and growers from the responsibility of investing in yield maximizing inputs, and fail to create an incentive structure that could otherwise encourage crops which would not only earn farmer a higher buck for his investment, but would also reduce reliance on imported primary commodities.
Governments, both past and present, expect farming sector to spawn a revolution without changing their strategy. If that’s not insanity, than what is.