POTENTIAL OF AGRICULTURE NEEDS TO BE UNTAPPED

SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI
Mar 16 - 22, 2009

Agriculture is the largest income and employment generating sector of Pakistan economy as about two third of its population directly and indirectly depend on agriculture for their livelihood. This sector provides raw material to the industrial sector specially the export oriented industry specially the textile. Agriculture has rightly been described as the backbone of Pakistan economy. But experts agree that agriculture potential of the country has remained untapped due to lack of vision and commitment. As a result instead of exporting agriculture products Pakistan is importing large quantities of wheat and other food items.

The International Food Policy Research Institute has identified Pakistan as one of the few countries in the world which are capable of exporting food on a sustainable basis in the 21st century. However, despite our potential to be one of the world leaders in Agriculture, we find ourselves faced with acute food shortage and food prices rising to crippling levels. The only reason is that agriculture has been the most neglected sectors in the priorities of the government planners and economic managers.

According the annual (2008) report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, world is likely to continue food shortage during foreseeable future. Food prices are likely to stay high and volatile. For million of people around the world soaring food prices have spelt disaster and about 100million more people have been pushed into hunger.

According to the annual report of the State Bank of Pakistan released a few weeks back the Agriculture sector showed a record low growth of 1.5% during the fiscal year 2007-08. Failure in large crop production was mainly because of resource management issues. A number of adverse developments hit agriculture sector to record a dismal 1.5 per cent growth during the year under review, which is significantly lower than the 4.8 per cent target for the year and the lowest growth since FY03. A weaker output by major crops overshadowed the record sugarcane harvest and relatively improved performance of minor crops; livestock and fishing sub-sectors during FY08, said the report.

A disappointing performance of major crops sub-sector is largely attributed to resource management issues and absence of a clear pricing policy. For instance, reduction in cultivated area under cotton, rice and wheat was a result of water shortages at the sowing time. Delays in harvesting of cotton and sugarcane (mainly due to pricing issues), and lack of clear incentive signals (as the government could not announce its pricing policy before sowing) also resulted in area deficit for wheat crop. In addition, stubbornly high prices of fertilizers and pesticides also drained.

Former Government State Bank of Pakistan, Dr. Ishrat Hussain in one of recently published articles on Pakistan's economy pointed out that main structural change that has occurred during the last five decade is that agriculture now accounts for 25% of Pakistan's GDP compared to 50% and primary commodity exports are down from 80 to 10%. But half of the country's population still derives its livelihood and employment from agriculture sector. This explains a lot how badly this sector of high potential of our economy has been neglected by our economic planners.

While presiding over a meeting convened to discuss the food shortage and rising prices early last month, President Zardari rightly pointed out that the growth and development of our agriculture sector and increase in agricultural product was the only way out of the present crises. He rightly observed we have a capacity to enhance agriculture growth manifold by utilizing modern techniques and equipments. We can not only feed our own people, we can export a sizeable quantity and earn foreign exchange. A lot can be learnt from the Chinese in this regard.

While agricultural reform has the 'potential to significantly raise productivity and employment, it is strongly perceived that Zardari has a good understanding and appreciation of agriculture, and the paradigm changes this sector has undergone over a period of time. Not only has President Zardari stated in his address to the joint session of Parliament that the immediate task for the government is the food security for to poor and that the biggest challenge for the government is the economy, the President has often been found stressing the need for a new focus on agriculture. It is also interesting to note that he has also been stressing the timely announcement of wheat support price for the growers in order to preempt acute shortages of the most important commodity in the country. According to him, the wheat crises that hit the country recently was due to the fact that farmers were not given a reasonable or competitive wheat price or a fair deal so that they could have been discouraged from shifting their focus from this crop to other.

Economists of high repute have advocated that the key to overcoming the present crises lies in the focus on agriculture, and Zardari could fully exploit his potential and ask his economic managers to devise strategies aimed at enabling the country increase agriculture growth to some new levels through a marked improvement in per hectare yield, coupled with efforts aimed at putting in place an integrated network of farm-to-market freight ways in order to achieve not only food security and give impetus to exports to ease pressure on the rupee, but also to create massive employment opportunities given that there are more unemployed people in rural areas than in urban areas. They will also be required to show the ability of thinking of new projects or new ways of doing things and make them successful in this sector. Time is running out fast. The government must convene a meeting in this respect at the earliest while fully acknowledging the fact that they key to success lies in agriculture and agri-driven exports. In a nutshell, the government agenda must encourage transition to commercial agriculture. They are also expected to address the issues of "inequality, welfare, and justice without any further loss of time.

As some parliamentarians pointed out in the National Assembly, urgent steps are required to boost agricultural output to cope with the food shortages facing the country. This can happen if the right policies are adopted. What is missing right now in the agricultural sector is innovation in terms of productivity as well as in management of arable land resources. On the latter count, it is encouraging to note that the federal, Sindh and Punjab budgets all include proposals to distribute cultivable state-owned holdings to landless peasants. If implemented without fear or favor, these measures can increase agricultural output and also help peasants break free from the vicious circle of servitude and extreme poverty that consumes generation after generation. Ultimately, however, the initiative should not be limited to the distribution of state land. Reform and redistribution of privately owned arable land is also of the essence, though this is perhaps asking too much of legislatures dominated by large landowners.

In terms of higher productivity, huge investment is required to improve yield in a country where existing farming practices are both inefficient and wasteful. There is a pressing need for greater mechanization in the cultivation and harvesting processes as well as the introduction of modern farming techniques that increase yield per acre and save water at the same time. Land leveling, for instance, can significantly reduce water run-off, prevent soil erosion and improve moist provides it at the root level where it is most needed. This in turn can boost yield and also improve the quality of the crop. Profligate farming methods aside, water the backbone of agriculture is also wasted on a massive scale in the wider irrigation network. Most canals and other waterways remain unlined and breaches too are common. Work on the National Programme for Improvement of Watercourses, which could save as much as eight million acre feet of water annually, is running at least two years behind schedule. At the same tone, a faulty telemetry system means that discharges in to the Indus river distribution network cannot be monitored effectively.

Needless to say, poor farmers are incapable on their own to embrace the modern cultivation methods discussed above. The State has to step in, set its priorities right and divert to agriculture some of the fat from non-productive areas such as government administration. Financial support and relevant training will have to be provided to farmers to help them make the switch to more efficient modes of cultivation. Access to agricultural credit needs to be made easier and additional research is required to develop crop varieties that are more productive and show greater resistance to disease. Agro-industry initiatives must also be facilitated as they add Value to agricultural products while generating jobs in the rural areas. All this is achievable, even with our limited1 resources. What is needed is planning and the necessary will.