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Agriculture — the weakest link

Pakistan imported $1.3 billion worth of cotton, sugar, and wheat in the last six months – such numbers are unprecedented. These three are staple crops and farmers’ livelihood, food security, and competitiveness of export (in case of cotton) depends on these crops. Had these crops been replaced by others, it would have been fine. But the problem is of falling productivity and poor resistance against pests and weather variations – resulting in deterioration of yields. That needs some serious attention.

Multiple issues have caused this problem. One is the excessive government footprint where it is not required (such as procurement, subsidy, and fixing of support, and release prices) in case of wheat and sugarcane. The issue in cotton is absence of government to ensure intellectual copyrights for seeds and over-regulation of big players and effectively no regulation for small players. One silent success is the amazing growth witnessed by maize in Pakistan. Interestingly, the crop was not on government radar, and private sector-led innovations increased the productivity and acreage of the crop.

The recent fiasco of wheat and sugar is clearly linked to government’s over-involvement in decision making which should best be left to the private sector. The data of stocks and flows are not reliable. The government processes reeks of inefficiencies – red-tapism and corruption. A combination of unreliable data and inefficiencies contributed to price hike and demand-supply mismanagement of commodities in the last year. The government must move away from the procurement business.

But it is not only the government that is keeping the innovation at bay. It is also the lack of control of farmers in crop-related decision-making processes. Arthi – the middleman— has historically squeezed farmers and never let the grower take advantage of better prices and productivity. Hence, no incentive to innovate.

The problem is of capital availability to farmers. Banks do not extend credit to growers to fulfill their requirements but the middleman does. Farmers get money when it is needed the most for personal and farming reasons from the middleman. But at the cost of better returns which are enjoyed by the informal credit provider. Government intervention is needed to control the middleman. The arthi’s role must be reduced, if not altogether eliminated.

In cotton value chain, ginners exploit the farmers. Some argue that All Pakistan Textile Mills Association’s (APTMA’s) pressure tactics over the period of time is one of the primary reasons for deterioration of cotton. When the prices are low, they go long on cotton, and when the prices move up, they don’t buy, unless the farmer sells at discount. Big textile players have distanced themselves from APTMA over the period of time. Asking APTMA to protect cotton is like asking cat to protect milk.

There is no strong body to protect farmers’ interest either. It used to be the case before the passage of 18th amendment as well, even though agriculture is now a fully devolved, provincial subject. Sadly, provinces have failed to live up to the challenge.

Another issue is of soil conditions – eroded over the period due to excessive use of pesticides and fertilizer – mainly urea (N) – balanced fertilizer application (P & K) is missing. Micro nutrients are missing as well. That needs to be addressed. A detailed survey of soil conditions is required and then the treatment must be done accordingly. Moreover, timely availability of water is essential. The issue is not that water is unavailable, the puzzle is of providing water when it is needed. That needs to be ensured.

The use of technology is imperative for fixing the mess. In cotton, we missed the GMO bus. It started in late 90s and in Pakistan proper stewardship never took place. The government could not protect the copyrights and seed technology was unable to develop.

Today, a new technology – CRISPR-Cas9 – is gaining traction for cotton production. In GMO, the DNA is modified. In CRISPR, the faulty strands within DNA are replaced. A specific problem in a genetic code within a plant can be solved. Unlike GMO, CRISPR does not need big companies and large budgets. One can modify pest and drought resistance within DNA. Experts are of the opinion that quality of cotton can improve using this technology.

Tools of precision agriculture can be used to address specific problems of application of fertilizer and pest attacks. Identification of missing micronutrients and insertion can be done. Then, the block chain technology can be used to extend credit, insurance, and subsidies to the farmers. In India, there are use-cases of passing fertilizer subsidy through block chains. Historically, in Pakistan, however, part of fertilizer subsidies is consumed by the manufacturers. This issue can be addressed. Similarly, balanced application of fertilizer can be ensured using technology and efficient subsidy mechanism.

Then there are issues of crop insurance. Especially, in case of better yielding and higher value vegetables and other perishables. Change in weather for weeks can completely destroy such crops. Using block chains, based on historic weather conditions in certain pockets, the farmer can get claim, if the weather in the season in question varies from the median condition. Even today, price volatility acts fatally for perishable items in the absence of cold storage in farming pockets. These must be developed.

The challenges of agriculture are multifold and demand a whole-of-the-government approach that brings together input from not just the experts of agriculture, but also of food security, textile/industries, technology, climate change, and finance. The situation is now spiraling out of control as the country is fast turning into a net agriculture importer. Not a good omen for a country supposedly relying on agriculture and its value add to achieve sustainable growth.

Ali Khizar, "Agriculture — the weakest link," Business Recorder. 2021-01-31.
Keywords: Economics , Mills Association , Climate change , Food security , GMO , CRISPR

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