Challenges faced by our Agriculture Sector

Pakistan's agricultural sector suffers from major endemic problems – it’s per hectare yield is the poorest in the region. We examine why this is so and where priorities should be set for improvement.

agriculture sector

The agriculture sector is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy. It contributes around 18.9% to Pakistan’s GDP and employs 42.3% of its labour force (Ministry of Finance). Agricultural production caters to approximately 68% of the rural population and plays a pivotal role in stabilizing Pakistan’s food security.

According to Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 3.81% growth in the agriculture sector was recorded during 2017-18, resulting from better government policies, availability of certified seeds, higher yields, pesticides, etc.

GDP from agriculture in Pakistan increased to 2,362,209 PKR millions in 2019 from 2,342,373 PKR millions in 2018 (State Bank of Pakistan, 2018). However, the agriculture sector is not performing as well as one would hope as Pakistan’s farm production is lower compared to other regions and it is one of the most food-insecure countries in the world which is reflected in the Global Food Security Index of 2019, where Pakistan ranked 74th.

As mentioned previously, a significant section of the rural population is dependent on agriculture as their sole source of earning and livelihood. Most farmers are living in abject poverty and cannot afford modern machinery or good quality seeds and pesticides, which results in low per hectare production and fewer exports, ultimately affecting the country’s overall economy.

Some of the major factors that contribute to Pakistan’s low yields in comparison to other countries in the region include a lack of mechanization and modern agriculture technology, usage of non-certified seeds either because of high costs or unavailability of good quality seeds, improper application of nutrients, low agricultural R&D expenditure, lack of application of fertilizers, lack of farmer training and a lack of financial credit.

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Lack of mechanization

An absence of farm mechanization and modern agriculture technology for harvesting, watering, sowing, et cetera, inevitably results in low per hectare production. Keeping in view small scale farmers’ financial conditions, governments need to provide them with proper financial assistance. Farm mechanization increases productivity in a timely manner, saves labors’ energy while covering more land, saves seeds, fertilizers, et cetera.

Pakistani farmers have actively been using trackers for farming operations. The crop reporting survey of Pakistan reports that there was a total of 508,841 trackers in Punjab during 2018-19. Land Utilization Statistics’ annual area report of CSR reports that a total of 12,599,678 hectares was cultivated in Punjab during 2018-19.

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Usage of non-certified seeds

High per hectare production goes hand in hand with good quality inputs like branded seeds and fertilizers. Small farmers do not have the financial stability to afford quality certified seeds; thus, they turn to substandard seeds which of course affects the quality of the crop harvested. The Federal Seed Certification and Registration Department supervise Pakistan’s agricultural seed supply. Pakistan’s private sector accounts for most of the certified seeds. In 2017, 82% of certified seeds were provided to farmers by private companies (Directory of Seed Companies, 2016).

2017-18 estimates show that around 66% gap was estimated between the total requirement of seeds and the actual certified seed supplies. Because of this vast gap, poor farmers use low quality traditionally obtained seeds that are more susceptible to poor growth, insects, weeds and diseases, resulting in a low per hectare yield production and high food insecurity.

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Improper use of fertilizers and nutrients

Pakistan uses most of the fertilizer on irrigated cotton, rice crops, sugarcane, wheat and these fertilizers are either imported or manufactured locally. The yield in Pakistan is lower as compared to the rest of the world even though in Pakistan the consumption of fertilizer (133 kg approx.) is higher than the world average (94.1 kg/ha).

There is a lack of up to date agricultural research and efficient use and unavailability of fertilizers and other farm outputs like quality seeds. Agricultural credit of over 50 billion per annum is not provided to the small farmer and nor does it fulfil the requirements. Farmers are not well informed about agricultural policies and research; therefore, they need to be kept in the loop.

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Low land productivity is a product of soil impoverishment (removal of nutrients and fertilizers from the soil) and negative soil nutrients (less nutrient application and more nutrient removal). Fertilizers and plant nutrients are pertinent to attain higher levels of food production.

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Essential nutrients required for grain production regions include Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), more recently, Zinc (Zn), Sulfur (S), Boron (B). Pakistani soils do not have enough Nitrogen (100%), Phosphorus (90%), Zinc (70%) and Boron (55%) (Fertilizer Recommendations, n.d.).

Lack of accessibility of credit

Small scale farmers in Pakistan do not have easy access to agriculture debt and credit. The requirement of agricultural debt has also increased due to costly mechanization, pesticides, quality seeds and fertilizers.

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For better yield production, farmers need modern farming tools and technology, and to do that, they need access to loans, so they are better equipped to invest in their business and yield profits. Therefore, there is a need for more facilities of agriculture debts, ones where loans are readily available, and interest rates are low.

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Low agricultural research & development spending

Pakistan has 209 agricultural research agencies (federal government: 64, provincial government: 114, higher education: 31) apart from the ones in the private sector. The Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) has research agencies across Pakistan and operates 12 satellite institutes, along with National Agriculture Research Centre (NARC) and several ministries. They accounted for 14% of Pakistan’s research capacity in 2012.

‘Punjab, the largest province, accounts for 1,145 full time equivalent (FTE) researchers and is home to Punjab Agriculture Research Board (PARB), a provincial body that guides research planning and resource allocation, and the Ayub Agricultural Research Institute, which manages 28 crop-related research institutes and units employing half the province’s agricultural researchers.’

‘In 2012, provincial agencies in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh employed 242, 327, and 377 FTE researchers, respectively. The higher education sector accounted for 15% of the nation’s agricultural research capacity in 2012, representing a substantial increase over levels in the early 1990s’ (Agricultural R&D Indicators Factsheet, 2015).

Hans GP Jansen, a senior agriculture economist at the world bank, had stated that yield gaps in major crops in Punjab are high and Pakistan is at the ‘bottom of agricultural R&D spending in South Asia’. Jansen believes that due to globalization and a need for policy reforms, Pakistan’s agriculture policy has become irrelevant.

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Agriculture: a saviour

Agriculture being the primary employing sector of Pakistan has always been ignored when it comes to reforms, policymaking and state funds. If given enough attention and funds, this sector can do wonders for a country like Pakistan. Israel, a country forty times smaller than Pakistan and with 60% desert area (Negev) is feeding the world with its remarkable agricultural breakthroughs.

Some Israel based start-ups spearheaded this growth with the help of technology and trained human resource. One of the prominent inventions is Tipa (Drop) irrigation kit, developed by Israel, which provides the water pressure to irrigate crops with the help of gravity thus producing more yield with meagre quantities of water.

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This kit has helped farmers in Senegal to reap crops three times a year instead of once with less use of fertilizers as water directly goes to the roots bringing evaporation down to negligible levels (Kloosterman, 2011).

SupPlant is an ag-tech company which has linked the drip irrigation technique directly to the smartphone through an application. This technique enables farmers in making decisions regarding water usage based on real-time data, i.e. the size of plants and condition of soil through sensors.

According to the IMF, Pakistan ranked third among the countries facing water shortage. The inculcation of this technique in agriculture can help Pakistan save water and increase its production to unprecedented levels (Leichman, 2019).

Pakistan’s pesticide industry is mainly imports based with roughly 30% cost component related to imports of raw materials and other essentials. This situation can be reversed by using solutions developed by another ag-tech firm named BioBee Biological Systems. BioBee deals in lab-produced predatory bugs and wasps which upon release into the crops kill harmful pests. Pesticide use has been provenly reduced up to 80% using these bugs.

Another such product line of BioBee is the Sterile Insect Technique (STI). It prevents fruit flies from laying fertile eggs by releasing lab-produced sterile male flies into the crops, thus reducing their population gradually.

The number of tractors per hectare can no longer be used as a yardstick to measure mechanization in the present age. Tractors were a product of the second agricultural revolution during the 18th-19th century, and currently, the world is going through the third agricultural revolution. Introduction of technology in agriculture and improved focus can result in wide ranging benefits for a country whose economic landscape is in a whirlpool of uncertainty.

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Agricultural Planning

‘The Government of Pakistan announced on March 18, 2019, a $2 billion, five-year agricultural plan that focuses on crop production diversification, but there are no details yet. Pakistan’s soon-to-be harvested 2019/20 wheat crop is forecast at 25.6 million metric tons, two per cent higher than last year’s forecast of 25.1 million metric tons’ (USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, 2019).

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