Sep 1 - 7, 2008

Nothing can satiate thirst until and unless the right measures are taken, and the same applies when it comes to the ongoing food crisis the world over. With fast increasing number of mouths to feed, the developing countries should concentrate on enhancing the agricultural production, failing of which can spark wars around the world as the Greek proverb "Hunger eats gods" well justifies it.

Food shortage and sky-rocketing prices, which have engulfed Pakistan too like rest of the globe, are two main reasons inviting attention and focus on enhancing agricultural production. Agricultural experts and researchers say that there are three methods to tackle the problem: expand the area under cultivation, increase input intensification and/or use scientific research methods.

Nevertheless, they are of the view that political and economic cost of bringing additional land under cultivation is very high and not suitable for Pakistan. It needs more water while construction of dams has become too controversial in our country. For 'input intensification', the prices of fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs need to be reduced, which is not possible when oil prices are skyrocketing. Encouraging input-intensification through subsidy does not reduce food costs as somebody in the society is paying the cost. Moreover, the use of industrial inputs like fertilizers and pesticides can increase productivity to a certain level beyond which it may damage the environment and the land itself. Excessive uses of these inputs may curtail the fertility of land in the medium and short-term.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan the input intensification approach is being followed. Subsidy is being extended to give temporary relief to farmers. In fact the mechanism of these subsidies is such that it results in not reducing rather increasing the input cost along with introducing anomalies in the distribution system. Moreover, subsidies are eating up major available public funds and very little is left to invest on sustainable methods of increasing agricultural production.

For Pakistan the only option left is to use 'scientific research' to enhance productivity. World over this method is being considered to improve per acre yield as it enables farmers to produce more at the given or lower level of resources thus brings down the unit production cost of food.

Experts say that only 0.25 per cent of the total Agricultural GDP of Pakistan is being spent on Agricultural Research while this ratio in Asia is 0.5 percent. Sri Lanka is spending 0.8 percent, Bangladesh 0.6 percent while India is spending 0.45 per cent of its agricultural GDP on research.

Out of total budget allocated for research in this sector, 85 percent goes to salaries and other non-developmental expenditures and only 15 percent is utilized for actual research and that too had to be spent by the scientists after facing long and cumbersome bureaucratic procedures.

Whatever little money was allocated for agricultural research contributed 65% of the increase in agricultural production during 1971-1994. This contribution, however, has reduced to almost nil afterwards as the system, in addition to dried up financial resources, was bogged down in various administrative and management problems. Dr. Mubarik Ali, Chief Executive of Punjab Agricultural Research Board, attributed this state of art to lack of administrative and financial autonomy, incentives for the scientists to deliver, poor reception for scientists among policy makers, and lack of planning and coordination of agricultural research. He stated that scientists were bogged down with lengthy and cumbersome bureaucratic procedures.

Dr. Mubarik Ali while talking to PAGE observed that due to the above constraints, the agricultural research system failed to deliver as expected. Last time Pakistani agricultural scientists made a breakthrough in developing a major wheat variety was in 1991 when Inqilab-91 was introduced by the Ayub Agriculture Research Institute (ARRI) and then the 'Super Basmati' variety released in 1996 by the Rice Research Institute, Kala Shah Kaku. Agricultural research system in Pakistan largely failed to resolve the emerging issues of agricultural sector, thus the sector lost its competitiveness in the domestic and international markets.

Dr. Mubarik said that there was a need to reform agricultural research system in a way that scientists are geared towards resolving high-priority issues in the agricultural sector, have administrative and financial autonomy to deliver, and their efforts are well-planned and coordinated. A number of research institutes are working in the country and there should be a mechanism to bring the outputs of individual scientists together, share the knowledge of each other, and avoid overlapping and duplication of each others' work.

Dr. Mubarik appreciated the Punjab government for according high priority to agricultural research as reflected in its first budget for the year 2008-09. More important is the mechanism through which this allocation will be made than the sheer size of the budget. The budget outlay of Rs 940 millions for agriculture research will not be spent on routine research activities but invested on research projects selected on competitive basis to resolve targeted high priority issues of the sector, he said.

He said that budgetary provision and investment mechanism would go a long way in converting agriculture from environment-dependant to science-based sector. He said that scientist community in Punjab has also lauded decision of Government in view of rapidly changing realities in global food security.

He said that unprecedented rise in energy cost, water shortage, reducing land for cultivation and growing competition between bio-fuels and food are causing surge in agricultural production cost for which Pakistan cannot remain unaffected. The only possible way to handle increasing food prices is to reduce production cost through science based technical innovations which enable farmers to produce more with less costs, he added.

Elaborating mechanism for investment in agricultural research, Dr. Mubarik Ali explained that Punjab Agricultural Research Board (PARB) has made extensive consultations with all stakeholders including policy makers, farmers, processors, traders, importers/exporters and consumers to identify high-priority researchable issues.

The PARB has provided five major directions or themes on which it will focus its investment. These include enhancing productivity with sustainability of major cropping system, promoting diversification and commercialization, conserving resources and protecting environment, improving competitiveness by value addition, and promoting knowledge based agricultural policies. The PARB scientists have provided a detailed list of issues under each theme on which scientists can submit the research proposals.

The PARB has so far received 160 projects from national and international research centers in the public and private sector which encompass issues relating to crop production, marketing, and value-chain and resource conservation. Most of these projects involve several research institutes to devise the solution of targeted problem. Dr. Mubarik Ali said that each feasible project would be reviewed independently by a technical working group (TWG) comprising of three experts selected from vast pool of scientists and most competent team who could deliver the solution in shortest possible time with lowest cost would be awarded the project. The scientists and institutions will be given significant incentives on the delivery of the research outputs in terms of solution of the designated problem. The research managers will have full control on project resources. Each project will be linked with reputed international agricultural research centers or laboratory working on the same issue. During implementation each project will be monitored for its promised output by PARB scientist.

He said that initiatives of the current elected government would augment food production, increase farmers' income, reduce rural poverty and improve international competitiveness.

Farmers Associates Pakistan (FAP) Chief Coordinator Idrees Khokhar talking on the subject said that there were two basic purposes of agricultural research one was to find out solutions of the problems and the other was identification of opportunities. 'Unfortunately research being carried out in Pakistan is not that effective to meet these goals,' he added.

He says that reasons behind this failure are that agricultural research needs heavier investment while our government seems to be reluctant for giving required funds. There are around 150 provincial and federal institutes and centers established for agricultural research but the funds allocated for this are lowest in Asian region. He said 90 percent of the funds which were allocated for agricultural research were used for administrative affairs and salaries and only 5-10 percent left for actual research. He said that there was also brain drain in this sector as agricultural scientists were getting more lucrative offers from abroad.

Idrees Khokhar also complained that research being carried out in Pakistan was not need based and our scientists seemed to be oblivious of farmers' need. He said our country was facing water shortage so such varieties should be produced which would be drought resistant. He also called for promoting and encouraging research in the private sector besides giving ample funds to agricultural universities and educational institutes to play their role in agricultural research.

Chairman Agri-Forum Pakistan, Muhammad Ibrahim Mughal said Pakistan has to focus on three areas for improving its agricultural production. One is water, second is provision of good variety certified seed and third giving farmer good price of their produce.

'Unless we have a proper variety of seed through research we cannot improve our produce. Our scientists should induce such qualities in the wheat that it should become drought resistant or its water requirement reduce, it should be pest-attack resistant and it also resists flourishing of weeds around it,' Mughal said.

He says that we are not using more than 20 percent certified seed in wheat and 50 per cent in Rice. We do not have single indigenous grain for sunflower crop. Our research should be purpose oriented. We had new variety of wheat back in 1991 and rice in 1994 and after that no new variety equally good to these varieties came up. These varieties had completed their life cycle and our research should focus on producing proper seed and proper technology. He said that the research should be made purposeful. He also called for reducing bureaucratic hurdles in the way of agricultural research.