May 31 - June 6, 20

Nearly two-third of Pakistan's entire population is engaged in agriculture activities but its share in total GDP has remained below one-forth for decades. Though, the output of different crops has increased over the years the yield has remained disappointingly low, lower than the world average. One single factor responsible for the dismal performance of the agriculture sector is bad crop management. The factors include use of low yielding varieties, improper application of nutrients and pesticides, inadequate availability of irrigation water and above all small size of landholding not allowing mechanised farming. In fact now, there is a need for land reforms aimed at consolidation of fragmented landholdings for applying modern farming techniques.

The major food crops of Pakistan are wheat and rice and now corn is also becoming a major source of edible oil. The major cash crops are cotton and sugarcane, which also provide basic raw materials for the two large-scale industries i.e. textiles and clothing and sugar mills. Output of oil seeds has remained far from satisfactory with country remaining highly dependent on imported palm oil. It seems that the lobby of palm oil importers is dominant because little has been done to improve production of corn, sunflower, and canola, the three major indigenous sources of edible oil, apart from cotton.

Pakistanis' very proudly say that their country is among the top five cotton producers of cotton. However, it is also a fact the textiles and clothing industry of the country is also highly inefficient. It is partly because of inconsistent production of cotton in the country. In Punjab, a lot of cotton growing area has come under sugarcane cultivation. While India successfully increased cotton output by cultivating BT cotton, many of the Pakistani farmers are completely ignorant of this variety. Some of them are reluctant to use imported or genetically modified seeds because of the bitter experiences of the past.

The country faces shortage of irrigation of water because of two reasons 1) inadequate storage facilities and 2) highly depleted water courses. Despite ample water flowing from mountains and rainfalls the water flows straight to sea due to the absence of adequate water storage facilities. Every year either the country faces flood or drought like situation, both causing huge losses to the farmers. During floods the standing crops are destroyed and drought like situation reduces yield of virtually every crop. Added to this is the highly depleted condition of watercourses. While the feudal lords draw more than the stipulated quantity of water, huge quantity of water spills over and hardly reaches the tail end farmers. The reason for the gradual depletion and/or destruction of water courses is lack of proper maintenance of water courses and absence of any type of lining. The primitive type of lining done decades ago has worn out with the passage of time. The point to remember is that the largest and the most efficient fabricated irrigation system had been created in this part of the world.

However, Pakistan now falls in the category of countries facing drought like situation because of improper maintenance and often deliberate damage to the system by the groups having vested interest.

The second but more contentious issue facing the country is water logging and salinity. This inundates thousands of acres of most fertile land every year. While least effort was made to contain seepage/spillover of water from watercourses, ill-conceived and badly managed RBOD and LBOD projects have been initiated to contain the rising water table. The discharge of saline water into fresh water channels regularly has not only contaminated these sources but also brought down output of the fields being irrigated by water highly unsuitable for irrigation.

Cultivable lands of Pakistan also suffer from lack of nutrients in general. This deficiency can be overcome by using different types of chemical fertilisers. The most common nitrogenous deficiency is being overcome through application of urea. However, there is also need to apply other types of fertilisers i.e. potash and phosphate to ensure balanced application of all the needed ingredients. The government strategy of supporting fertiliser manufacturing industry has helped in increasing local production of urea. The first urea plant of around 178,000 tons per annum was established in Pakistan in late sixties by Engro and today the installed capacity is around 5.5 million tons. Despite this, last year country was forced to import 1.5 million tons urea. The latest expansion of Engro and commencement of operations by Fatima and Agritech plants are likely to once again make country self-sufficient in indigenous production of urea. A temporary surplus will be there but Pakistan needs to add two million tons additional urea production over the next ten years. Without guaranteeing feedstock supply and price bringing the additional capacity on line is just impossible, particularly keeping in view the prevailing shortage of gas in the country. However, analysts are of the opinion that the required gas can be made available by 1) containing UFG losses of gas distribution companies and 2) resolving the ongoing litigation of the already discovered gas fields.

At present farmers do not consider growing corn an economically viable proposal. It is mainly because of lack of awareness. In fact, cultivation of corn on massive scale can help in overcoming one of the most contentious issues facing Pakistan, limited production of edible oil in the country. Is it not ironic that Pakistan imports hundred and thousands of tons of palm oil which is not only inferior to corn oil but needs huge amount for being refined. In fact, Pakistan has the potential to become an exporter of corn oil if government offers the right incentives. Cultivation on corn will also improve income of the farmers and help in earning foreign exchange.

Agriculture output in the country cannot be increased by overcoming shortage of irrigation water. While the efforts must continue to stop India from stealing Pakistan's water, necessary improvements in the irrigation system should also be brought for efficient utilisation of the available limited supply of water. It is true that country needs to construct mega dams for storage of water but lining of the water courses can help in taking water to tail-end farmers. Containing seepage and spillover will also help in controlling the menace of water logging and salinity.