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A country which fails to grow enough wheat to feed its people cannot truly call itself ‘agricultural’

By Syed M. Aslam
Jan 17 - 23, 2000

Who could forget the ‘flour riots’ which caused public unrest bordering on lawlessness, sporadic looting and deaths caused by police firings in many parts of the country in April 1997. The images of those frantic weeks are still etched in the memories of many Pakistanis.

The 1997 food riots sent a clear message— the shortage of wheat, the primary staple food of Pakistanis, will not be tolerated. It also posed a vital question; Can a country which fails to grow enough wheat to feed its people truly call itself ‘agricultural?’

The increased dependence on wheat imports is evident from the sharp rice in the volume of imports at the huge cost to economy. The previous decade has seen a sharp increase both in the volume and value of wheat imports. Years after years promises of achieving wheat autarky by successive governments have remain unfilled. In fact the dependence has only increased. See Table 4.

Once again this year the government plans to import half a million tonne of wheat. The federal minister for Food, Agriculture and Livestock, Dr Shafquat Ali Jamote has recently said that the government has slashed wheat imports from 1.1 million tonnes to half a million tonne. He said the decision was taken as the country has enough stocks to meet the wheat demand in Pakistan. He, however, did not mention the quantity of wheat stocks in the country. Pakistan needs some 55,000 tonnes of wheat every day to meet the local demand. As of May last year, the country has a stock of 130,000 tonnes of wheat.

With the wheat sowing season at least two months away— harvesting in Sindh province starts in March and by middle of April in Punjab — the minister said that the half a million tonnes of wheat consignment would reach Pakistan by end next month. It usually takes another month for the wheat flour to reach the market as unmilled wheat has to be procured and released by the government and to the flour mills as per the allowed quota.

As is true with all other agricultural crops, the vagaries of the weather play a vital role to achieve a targetted production. What has caused a sense of relief, as well as revived the hope, among the farmers and the government is the rainfalls throughout the country days prior to January 15. The rains broke the persisting dry spell which threatened to cause massive damage to the wheat crop to lessen the prospects of achieving the 20 million tonnes wheat target this season.

The dry season was feared to deprive the country one million tonnes of wheat production which could have translated at Rs 7.5 billion tonnes at the government-fixed support price of Rs 300 per 40 kilogram or Rs 7.5 per kilogram. The government has recently increased the support price by 25 per cent to Rs 300 per 40 kilogram to encourage the farmers to produce more wheat by increasing the acreage by 15 per cent.

Can the increase in the support price be a big incentive alone to help achieve the desired results? Many agriculturists disagree. According to an analysis available with PAGE the costs of inputs to cultivate an acre of wheat comes to Rs 10,000. This includes labour charges, costs of seeds, fertilizers, water charges at all stages including seedbeed preparation, sowing, cost of fertilizers, harvesting, threshing and transportation. The expected return per acre, however, is much low— less than Rs 6,600 [The PAGE analysis is based on the per hectare yield of 2,167 kilograms in 1998-99 which translates into 877 kilograms per acre multiplied by support price of Rs 300 per 40 kilogram or Rs 7.50 per kilogram].

This poses a serious challenge for the government to encourage the farmers to cultivate more wheat by increasing the support price on the one hand and the resulting increase in the price of wheat flour at the expense of people on the other. This is particularly obvious from the 1997 flour riots and the ensuing unrest about the sharp price increases for months afterwards. The political fallout could be enormous.

The only options

There are only two ways to increase wheat production— increased acreage and/or increased per hectare yield. Though wheat acreage, production and per hectare yield have increased from 1990-91 to 1998-99 it has grown at a much smaller rate compared to the population. While the wheat acreage, production and per hectare yield has risen during the previous decade they were unable to match the substantial increase in Population (See Table 1 and 2).

In 1991 the population of Pakistan was 111 million people which increased to 131.51 million in 1998 as per the census carried out the same year. The population is expected to increase by 2.5 per cent in the years to come.

It is surprising that the increasing area of Current Fallow and Cultivable Waste has failed to draw the needed attention. Before proceeding further it is necessary to explain what these terms mean. Current Fallow is the area which is vacant during the year under reference but was sown at least during the previous year while Cultivable Waste is the uncultivated farm area which is fit for cultivation but was not cropped during the year reference nor in the previous year.

Though the total cropped area (including the area sown more than once) has increased by 5 per cent from 21.82 million hectares in 1990-91 to 23.04 million hectares in 1998-99 the Cultivable Waste and Current Fallow have also increased. The former has increased from 8.85 million hectares to 9.14 million hectares while the later has increased from 4.85 million hectares to 5.27 hectares. This has neutralised any positive impact of the increase in the total cropped area. It is imperative to pay attention to this particular problem which has failed to attract the attention of the authorities despite its harmful impact.

What also necessitates a massive increase in the wheat production is the fact that the per capita acreage of all the major food grains have dropped significantly since 1972 primarily due to a high population growth rate. The areas under such important crop as bajra, barley and jowar has decreased. During 1990-91 and 1998-99 bajra acreage has declined from 491,000 hectares to 463,000 hectares; barley from 157,000 hectares to 154,000 hectares; and jowar from 417,000 hectares to 396, hectares. The fact that areas under crop of these grains keeps fluctuating poses many uncertainties to the overall food grain production in the country in any given year. The uncertainty causes many anxieties to calculate exactly how much wheat would be required during the given year to meet the local demand.

This is all the more worrying in an international market where the politics of scarcity has long replaced the concern for necessity. The concerns about future wars over food and water does seem to make sense. The huge fluctuations in the international prices is a major concern for many wheat importing countries like Pakistan which has to spend a massive foreign exchange to help meet its demand. How the fluctuating international prices can put a dent in a developing economy like Pakistan is obvious from the unit value per tonne price the country has paid on wheat imports during 1990-91 to 1997-98. See Table 3.

International market

If trends are any indication it is clear that without achieving self-sufficiency in wheat, Pakistan, like all other wheat deficient countries, would keep on paying a heavy price to feed its populace. With increasing demand of food grains, particularly wheat, as the world population crosses the six billion mark a handful of exporters would be in a position to dictate the prices. This indeed would be dangerous for a developing country like Pakistan.

The scenario can be demonstrated by the following factual example. In 1997 the world total food grains production touched a record high of 1,881 million tonnes, 21 tonnes more than the 1996 production.

The politics of scarcity is also evident from the banning of wheat exports by the US to Pakistan in spite of a good crop in the US this year. The decision of the US government drew a strong protest from the farmers which were keen to ship the wheat surplus. The US move, however, has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Pakistan who was able to procure the commodity from Australia, another major global exporter of the commodity. This is an apt example of the politics of scarcity by the wheat exporters and also shows how vital it would be for Pakistan to gain food autarky.

Unknown to many China, today, has become the leading producer of wheat in the world. In 1997, it produced a record 124 million tonnes or about one-fifth of the total global production. India, on the other hand, has moved to the number two slot to surpass 69 million tonnes of the US wheat harvest in 1997.

Population growth

Despite a slowdown in the global rate of population growth— the annual rate has slowly dropped from its historic high of 2.2 per cent in 1963 to 1.4 per cent in 1997— the global population crossed the six billion mark recently. The reduction in the global population growth rate, however, masks regional inconsistencies as developing countries today are growing at a much faster rate than that in the industrialised West— 1.7 per cent compared to 0.3 per cent. The growth rate is even higher in sub-Saharan Africa 2.7 per cent.

According to the 1998 census the population of Pakistan was 130.6 million depicting an increase of 55 per cent over the last census held in 1981. This indicates an average growth rate of 2.6 per cent which is lower than the 3.1 per cent during 1972-81. The growth is expected to increase by a rate of 2.4 per cent till 2003 and 2 per cent after that. In short Pakistan still has to face pressure from a huge population growth rate in the years to come.

On the other hand, the world has to feed an extra 80 million babies in 2000 which will require 26 million tonnes of additional food grain. The implications of increasing food demand in the years to come is a cause for concern.

The situation for Pakistan is even more alarming as many feel that the 1998 census does not reflect the true population of the country which they say has already exceeded the 140 million mark.

Viewed against the global statistics the situation seems to get even worse. Trends show that there has been a six per cent drop in per capita grain production which declined to record 342 kilogram in 1984 to 322 kilogram in 1996. For a wheat dependent country like Pakistan it means paying more and more dollars to meet the local demand.

The increasing global population and the weather uncertainty play two major factors to determine the price of wheat in any given year. How it could affect the global wheat stocks at the inconvenience to importing country like Pakistan is obvious from the fact that the global carryover food grains stocks, the leftover amount when a new harvest arrives, in 1998 was only enough to last for 57 days, 13 less than the globally accepted 70 days needed for even a minimal level of food security.

The increasing demand for food grains, particularly wheat whose global production has fluctuated wildly during 1991 to 1998 and any similar recurrence would mean that wheat importing country would have to pay a premium price for the commodity not only this year but also in future. The worst hit will be the 1.3 billion people of the world which live on less than dollar a day. Its impact will also be felt by the people in Pakistan whose per capita income is only slightly higher.

Unknown to many, China has emerged as the world’s leading wheat producer. China produced a record 124 million tonnes of wheat or about 20 per cent of the total world production of 609 million tonnes in 1997. China was poised to double the US wheat harvest of 69 million tonnes as India moved into the number two slot. The 1997 bumper crop was primarily attributed to record or near-record harvests in China, India, Us and the European Union.


A major breakthrough in the agriculture sector is required to avert the catastrophic situation in the near future. In spite of a high fertilizer usage which equals that of many developed countries, Pakistan ranks 12th and 9th on the list of the key wheat and rice producing countries respectively as far as the per hectare yield is concerned.

It not only trails much low behind UK, the top per hectare wheat producer of the world at 7.7 tonne but also India. Per hectare wheat production in Pakistan is 2.1 tonnes compared to 2.5 tonnes in India.

To break the stagnation in the agriculture sector the huge water losses in the irrigation system should be checked, the infrastructure in the rural areas be developed to improve farm to market delivery and proper education and training to acquaint the farmers in modern agriculture practices are required. Without these changes would keep on using the maximum of fertilizers, which has already reached at par with many of the developed countries, without increasing the productivity.

Wheat: Population Vs Cultivated Area


Population (Million)

Area Under Wheat Crop



5.971 Million Hectares



7.223 Million Hectares



8.332 Million Hectares

1 Hectare= 2.47 acre

Source: Economic Survey of Pakistan

Wheat: Vital Statistics


Cultivated Area


Per Hectare Yield

Support Price




1,841 kg

Rs 112




1,990 kg

Rs 124




1,946 kg

Rs 130




1,893 kg

Rs 160




2,081 kg

Rs 160




2,018 kg

Rs 173




2,053 kg

Rs 240




2,238 kg

Rs 240




2,167 kg

Rs 240

%age Change





Area in Million Hectares, Production in Million Tonnes, Per Acre Yield in Kilograms, Support Price in Rs per 40 Kilogram

[Recently the support price of wheat was increased to Rs 300 per 40 kilogram

Source: Economic Survey 1998-99

Increasing Dependence At Huge Foreign Exchange Spendings

Import of Unmilled Wheat

Year Qty (M Tonnes) Unit Value/Metric Tonne Total Cost

1990-91 0.972 3,208 Rs 3.1 Billion

1991-92 2.018 4,205 Rs 8.5 Billion

1992-93 2.868 4,212 Rs 12 Billion

1993-94 1.902 3,804 Rs 7.2 Billion

1994-95 2.617 4,874 Rs 12.8 Billion

1995-96 1.968 7,718 Rs 15.2 Billion

1996-97 2.500 7,570 Rs 19 Billion

1997-98 4.088 7,413 Rs 30 Billion

% change +320 +131 +900

Source: Economic Survey 1998-99

Analysis PAGE

Wheat: Per Hectare Yield in Major Producing Countries (1994-96)

Country Yield (Tonnes)

UK 7.7

France 6.8

Egypt 5.6

Mexico 4.1

China 3.6

Poland 3.4

Ukraine 2.7

India 2.5

US 2.5

Canada 2.3

Pakistan 2.0

Australia 1.6

Russia 1.4

Kazakhistan 0.6

Source: US Department of Agriculture