New Agri Technology, Opinions, Precision Farming

How smart can agriculture be

There are many issues that need to be addressed to make the local agriculture tech-friendly

Agriculture contributes around 20 per cent of Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). With a population growth rate of 2.4 percent, the country’s population of 210 million poses a threat to food security. A look at the prices of agricultural products shows that vegetables are getting out of the reach of people who are spending a major part of their income on buying food.

A major concern is that the arable land per capita is decreasing due to various reasons, including use of agricultural land for non-farming purposes, degradation of land due to unhealthy agricultural practices, low yields because of obsolete and outdated practices, excessive use of pesticides, low-quality seeds and unfriendly government policies on new technology, etc.

While the developing world is fast adopting agriculture technology, the situation in Pakistan is far from satisfactory. We hear about recurrent crop failures, low yields, and destroyed crops due to extreme weathers and water shortage, etc. Cotton production over the last few years is much lower than the demand is, forcing Pakistan’s textile industry to import it to overcome the shortage. The reasons for this situation include: diseases, water shortage, smuggled hybrid and Bt cotton seeds that do not suit the soil and unsatisfactory performance of agricultural research institutes.

Pakistan is 10 to 15 years behind countries, like Brazil and Argentina in adopting modern tools in agriculture. But this does not mean that Pakistan’s farmers are living in an age of obsolete farming techniques. On the contrary, over 95 percent of the cotton crop in Pakistan is genetically modified (GMO) cotton or Bt. The cotton seed oil from the crop is added to locally-produced edible oil whereas the residual oil-seed cake (khal banola) is consumed by the livestock sector.

Maize crop is also consumed locally in much the same way as GMO cotton. Almost 70 percent of national grain output goes into poultry feed, another 10 percent of it goes into silage for livestock, 10 percent is used in wet milling, 5 percent is utilised as seed for planting fodder and a miniscule 5 percent is consumed directly as flour. As per official figures, 95 percent of the yield is Hybrid Maze, which has increased the yield four times over the last 25 years.

So the question here is what must the government do to adopt technology and apply safeguards if it thinks options like allowing GM seeds in food products are disastrous.

There is a perception among local and international companies that Pakistan is under the influence of local agricultural input companies who do not want to lose their market to the big ones with huge R&D budgets. The tech-based companies, on the other hand, claim that without adopting high-yield seeds, it would be impossible to produce sufficient food to feed the ever-rising population.

Using new technology is difficult for other reasons as well. For example, local farmers complain that they cannot use intelligent drones to spray pesticides on their crops because they have to seek prior approval from the local administration to use them. This is no easy task, they claim.

Dr Muhammad Afzal, Executive Director, CropLife Pakistan — a subsidiary of CropLife Global, explains that growing population, climate change, scarcity of water and changing lifestyles continue to pose challenges to the national food security, emphasising the need to promote sustainable means to grow food and embrace technological innovations that enable the same. These challenges call for a total overhaul of the agricultural production process in our country and taking informed decisions enabled by data and technology.

A major concern is that the arable land per capita is decreasing due to various reasons, including use of agricultural land for non-farming purposes.

Afzal says leading global companies dealing in agricultural inputs are members of CropLife, which spend around USD 6.1 billion on Research & Development globally. The organisation, he says, was set up in 1968 with the aim to represent research-based companies in areas of crop protection, seeds and biotech. It also claims that in Pakistan 100 percent of the chemistries introduced so far have been developed by CropLife members which form basis of 3,700 registrations.

Major breakthroughs have come in the form of hybrid seeds that have increased yields and created immunity in plants against excessive heat, water shortage, prolong droughts and so on. Several Pakistani institutes are experimenting with seeds to increase shelf life of agricultural products as well as introduce late varieties, as in the case of mangoes. Longer shelf lives and late arrivals make it possible to send products to longer distances.

Anyhow, things are not as simple as these look on paper and there are certain issues that need to be addressed to make local agriculture tech-friendly. In January 2019, the Ministry of National Food Security and Research (MNFS&R) suspended the GM maize hybrid registration process at its penultimate stage due to which introduction of new varieties was delayed. The ministry raised a wide range of objections, including concerns about GM maize efficacy, health and environmental safety and possible adverse impact on trade to defend its decision.

The industry, however, challenges the claim. It says the objections are recent ones and that the government did not object to adoption of GM which are in use in Pakistan for the last two and a half decades. A representative of a seed company points out that as per the ministry’s own published data, Punjab’s average crop yield was just under 13 maunds per acre in 1992-93, when cultivation of open pollinated maize varieties was the norm. At present, he says, average yields show four-fold increase, largely due to the widespread adoption of high quality hybrid seed and farmer education programmes.

“Over 95 percent of maize area in Punjab has been converted into hybrid maize cultivation and further increase in yields will be marginal unless a new innovative technology is introduced for the purpose,” he claims. As per Pakistan Economic Survey 2018-19, average yields are increasing at a nominal 2.5 per cent annually, a rate insufficient to meet the growing demand, especially of the poultry industry that consumes almost 70 percent of the produce. “Approval of new varieties is a must to meet the fast-growing demand of maize.”

Jens Hartmann, Regional Head for Asia Pacific (APAC) for the Crop Science division of Bayer, says a third of arable land has been lost due to erosion or pollution in the past 40 years, while our production pattern continues to be too resource-intensive. Without plant science and technology, he says, farmers would need an extra 376 million hectares to grow the same amount of food — let alone double the production.

“Since we cannot simply create more farmland at the expense of natural habitat, to grow enough food using less natural resources, we will need to adopt a holistic and integrated approach to agriculture,” adds Hartmann.

The contentious issues notwithstanding, biotechnology has been identified as one of the six priority areas in the country’s science and technology policy. A National Policy and Action Plan for biotechnology was developed and incorporated in the Midterm Development Framework (2005-2010). Advancement in biotechnology is also a part of Vision 2025 and National Food Security Policy 2018.

“At present, there are around 500 scientists conducting biotechnology research with huge teams, 45 universities and R&D organisations working on biotech and a large number of universities teaching biotechnology,” says Dr Muhammad Zafar, adding that the fruits of these endeavours must reach the farmers.

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

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