An ‘agricultural’ Pakistan — a necessity

By Nabeel Qadeer

Since its inception, Pakistan has always primarily been an agriculture-reliant economy. With the Green Revolution of the 60s being a growth impetus, the sector contributes around 18% to the GDP, employs 42% of the total labour force, and constitutes 75% of total exports revenue.

To picture its significance in a better way, let’s see how it affects people at a micro-level. Income of over 12 million households is directly linked to how well a seasonal crop does. Another 4 million households are involved in livestock farming. Any fluctuation means their livelihood and access to basic needs get compromised. And this does not account for informal labour, the work performed by women during harvest season. In simple terms, Pakistan’s rural population, which is 64% of the total, is affiliated with the agriculture sector. This is what makes the industry so important.

The agriculture sector experienced a growth of 3.8% in the last financial year. The yield per hectare of major crops, however, has been on a decline over the years. For example, Pakistan’s wheat yield is only 38% of what France produces, rice crop is merely 29% of yield per hectare of the US and cotton produce is just 52% of what China grows per hectare. There are multiple reasons for this — soil fertility, seed quality and limited financing being just some of them.

Countries such as China, Israel and Brazil have experienced exponential growth in the agriculture sector. Pakistan can learn from their policy experiences and interventions to strengthen its own agriculture sector.

Brazil’s agricultural production grew by more than 400% over the past two decades. This growth has been despite challenges of infrastructure and transportation logistics the country still faces. What it did right was to invest in research. Thereby, introducing new methods of operation such as ‘no till’ agriculture, genetic modification of seeds, and increasing arable land through chemicals. To complement this, the private sector jumped in with investments in infrastructure and logistics, even if with a motive of market profitability.

Israel, despite its land area as small as the state of New Jersey, has increased agricultural output substantially. Smart irrigation methods, including micro-irrigation that utilises drip technology, have been instrumental in this growth. In addition, Israel treats almost 80% of domestic wastewater, recycling it for agricultural use. This constitutes nearly 50% of the total water used for agriculture; hence, overcoming the challenge of water shortage.

If Pakistan is to reposition the agriculture sector as globally competitive and as a tool to impact millions of lives, it is important that a dynamic long-term strategy be devised — a multi-dimensional policy that works to improve the total sector output like Brazil did, increase per unit productivity as China did and enhance efficiency by introducing technology as Israel has. In doing so, the potential role of different stakeholders, including entrepreneurs and investors, must be explored and acknowledged. This will encourage them to take policy ownership and work to make it a success.

Entrepreneurs are natural problem-solvers. They can develop products and propose local solutions to a set of common agricultural problems. In turn, they have a scalable market ready to be accessed. Use of drone technology to monitor crop growth is one such solution. However, any such entrepreneurial solution needs to be backed on a large scale for ground-level implementation.

Agriculture and ancillary sectors can be utilised for poverty alleviation as was practised in China. Programmes facilitating small landholders by providing access to micro credit, subsidised graded seeds and shared advanced technology can improve their livelihood, thereby pulling them out of poverty.

In Bangladesh, for example, and other developing countries of Latin America and Africa, small-scale poultry and livestock businesses have been supported as a means of poverty alleviation. It promoted women entrepreneurship, financial inclusion and strengthened the local livestock industry as well. Subsequently, livelihood of those directly involved improved and so did food supply.

Structured support of the sector will help in striking a better balance in the labour market, thereby releasing the ‘push’ factor of urban migration. Government-assisted vocational trainings and academic degrees, for example, will create an incentive to pursue sector-based knowledge. It will add some prestige to agriculture as a career field and encourage youth from rural backgrounds to adopt it as an option.

Pakistan’s economy is facing enormous challenges. It is exactly in such testing times that bold decisions are taken — decisions that have the power to convert challenges into opportunities. It is the right time to create a supportive policy environment for the agriculture sector and improve the livelihood of over 12 million households. Rather than mocking the Prime Minister’s simplistic rhetoric on kattas, murghis & desi andas, it’ll be more valuable for us, as a nation, to realise the importance we need to give to promoting the agriculture sector of Pakistan. Yes, his priorities seem spot-on. Let’s stay positive and support our government in making agricultural reforms a prime agenda item.