Fertilizer, Water

Fertilizers management to compensate water shortage

By Zafar Samdani 

Water shortage has placed a question mark over the rabi crops, particularly wheat but water is a commodity that can only be managed, not increased, certainly not within a few weeks time.

Other components of the agriculture can however be harnessed to contribute towards better productivity. Fertilizers are top of that list

They are in short supply exactly when the crops require them most. Such a situation can be a coincidence if this happens once in a while but yearly occurrence of this phenomenon suggests premeditated and systematic operations for profiteering from fertilizers. DAP is particularly sold at a high price all the time and is supplied to farmers at exorbitant rates at crucial stages of crops.

It has been claimed that prices of both DAP and urea are lower than the prevailing rates in the international market, with urea at times cheaper by 40 per cent than world-wide rates.

The claim is firstly less than authentic and secondly, prices have to be seen in the local context, that is, the purchasing power of consumers and not in comparison with other countries where agriculture has major role in the economy.

A comparison is not in order in this case because other factors cannot be equal. Subsidies granted to the farming sector and prices of farm products in many developed countries enable their farmers to make higher investment for inputs. The sale of the produce is also guaranteed. The agriscape of Pakistan is, to say the least, different.

The Fauji Foundation recently struck an agreement with a Moroccan firm for joint production of DAP. The Moroccan company is the world’s largest exporter of phosphate fertilizer and is familiar with Pakistan, having previously helped the production of DAP in the country.

The joint venture, to be located in Morocco, is billed to underwrite total DAP needs of Pakistanis once it gets in to production. No time frame of the project’s completion has however been indicated. However, considering that only preliminary moves have been made so far, it can be safely said that it would be some years till the project becomes a factor in Pakistan’s agriculture.

But exactly what are agriculture sector’s phosphate fertilizer’s requirements? The sale of DAP is stated to have declined by 15 per cent in the country last year.

This happened at a time when growers, even those who practice agriculture in a traditional manner, are becoming increasingly convinced of the link between the impact of application of fertilizers with enhanced productivity.

Logically, the sale of fertilizers should go up due to increased awareness in the farming community statistics show a sliding down graph. The obvious reason is the high cost of DAP.

It is just not affordable for small landowners who constitute the bulk of the sector in Pakistan; financial means and crop marketing conditions are hurdles this segment cannot cross.

The demand for urea has however been increasing, underlining the awareness of its effect on crops. It was placed at eight percent above for the first six months of the current year as against the same period last year. The price of urea has spiraled in the international market while it is claimed to be available to local farmers at lower rates.

This is to be taken with a pinch of salt. Apparently, the comparison is between the cost of imported and domestically produced urea that covers about 80 percent of domestic consumption of the commodity the claim of self-sufficiency in urea production notwithstanding; urea is consequently sold which is sold to consumers at two different rates. What logic and justification can be there for this kind of pricing?

There is no reason to doubt the intentions of the government. It has reduced GST and withholding tax on urea and has successfully negotiated a reduction in its price with the fertilizer industry.

However, domestic production suffered a four percent decline in the first half of the current year (in comparison with the same period last year) due mainly to shortage of raw material and increase in production costs.

The government has been contemplating and implementing measures to reduce the production cost of urea such as maximum supply of gas to producers, among other efforts.

But these aren’t sufficient steps for devising an integrated policy for serving the agriculture sector on long term basis. And unless that is done, the sector’s need for fertilizers would continue to be exploited.

Reliable basic data for such a policy does not appear to be available with policy makers. The starting point is working out the total requirement of sector. But the extent of cultivation of other farm produce, not all of it necessarily to be put under minor crops, has never been accurately mapped. And even in the case of main crops like wheat, cotton, rice and sugar cane, the area a crop covers becomes correctly known only after sowing is completed.

Considering everything, the collection of data on an empirical basis has to be ruled out because the agriculture sector itself is in an essentially disorganized state; many farmers take their decisions in consultation with nature and market conditions before embarking on cultivation. But a majority of growers can always be counted on for being clear about plans and working out their requirements should not be an impossible proposition.

This is not to say that no data is available with the government agencies. According to available official figures, urea production in the country almost meets the sector’s demand as annual production is 4.8 million tons while off-take is placed at 4.26 m tons over the period of one year.

This would be a rosy picture if shortages marking the market are ignored. Statistics suggest production in excess of requirements but farmers tell a different story. They often have to run from pillar to post to obtain their urea supplies. As for DAP, its entire requirement, officially put at 1.2 million tons, is imported.

The government recently announced that special cells would be set up for supervising and monitoring, the ‘production, import, quality, demand and supply’ of fertilizers with a view to ensuring their on time and required quantity’s availability to farmers.

This would be a good move but creating another agency or agencies would complicate issues and may end up adding to existing bottlenecks. More organizations and offices are hardly the solution of the problem.

The provinces of Sindh and Punjab, particularly the later have huge extension wings whose contribution to productivity has become questionable because their staffing was carried out when the sector was working along traditional lines. Agriculture in Pakistan is now in the process of being modernized; it needs a level of expertise that is beyond the majority of the present workers of these wings.

But their services can still be utilized by assigning them the task of working out fertilizer requirements of the sector. They can render useful work because they know the lay of the land, if not its present day problems.

The Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock (MINFAL), would do a better job by involving provinces in this process instead of establishing more offices and employing people who are not qualified for managing issues confronting the sector.

This is not to question the intentions of MINFAL but only to point out that new agencies are not the answer to any problem, as has been seen in many other areas of the government. The MINFAL itself has a host of subsidized organizations that have done next to little to promote causes for which they were brought in to existence.

What the government should be doing is harness existing resources and facilities instead of spreading itself thin, ignoring available resources and ministries trying to extend their empires to more unmanageable levels and further messing up an already ungainly state of affairs.