Food for Thought
When Pakistan, a country that is the 5th-largest global producer of sugarcane and the 8th-largest global producer of wheat, faces sugar and wheat crises, one after another, there’s a strong indication that something’s not right at the policymaking level.
The changing climate, water scarcity in different countries, growing global population, and inflation are expected to have a significant impact on global food security. In Pakistan, around 40% of the population faces moderate to severe food insecurity in the aftermath of the pandemic, per a survey conducted by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, although the country has, generally, been self-sufficient in major staple crops.
Pakistan has 79.61 million hectares of land, of which 58.02 million hectares have been surveyed and reported. Of the total reported area, the cropped area is 40% and this has remained the same during the last twenty years, while the population has increased by around 50% during the same period. Wheat represents the largest segment of the cultivated area(around 8.7 million hectares), followed by rice (2.8 million hectares).
Although the land and the agro-climatic environment in the country are conducive, the wheat yield in Pakistan remains lower than the world average. During 2018–19, Pakistan had average productivity of 2.8 tons per hectare, compared to around 5.6 tons per hectare in China. Ukraine, as another example, produced more wheat than Pakistan in 2019, even though the harvested area is lower than that of Pakistan.
The lower productivity could be attributed to inadequate water supply during the crucial times of wheat growth, late planting of wheat due to delayed harvesting of kharif crops, inefficient access to farm inputs and problems in the supply chain, including storage issues.
It’s a cause for alarm that the areas that produce the food and the people who grow the crops are among the ones affected most by food insecurity.
During 2020, the government had to allow the private sector to import wheat as the said target of 27 million tons of wheat production could not be achieved. This is a serious concern for a country where wheat contributes around 37% of total food energy intake.
Although Pakistan has had developed higher-yielding wheat varieties in the past 16 years or so, sustainable gains have not been made. While on the one hand, the country needs to develop strategies to increase its productivity — of major staple crops, in particular wheat — it also needs to develop policies that can prevent the recurrence of crises caused by reasons other than low output.
In 2020, the country faced wheat- and sugar-crisis, one after the other. While the yield loss was one factor, mismanagement and delayed decision-making exacerbated the problems. The policymakers acted slow, hoarders profited, and the millions of consumers suffered.
There’s no doubt that some agricultural segments in Pakistan, sugar industry, for example, have long been influenced by the powerful families and enterprises. This should, however, not stop the involvement of the private sector in bringing innovative ideas to the table, especially in the sub-sectors that are not heavily influenced.
Challenges to food security are real and these are going to intensify in the coming decades, owing to climate change and increasing population, among other factors. On the one hand, the public sector needs to understand the gravity of the situation, on the other hand, the private sector needs to think innovatively. There is very little participation of Pakistan’s educated private sector in agribusiness. The smallholder farmers — the backbone of agricultural production — not only lack capital but also do not have up-to-date knowledge about the sophisticated techniques used in the world that can increase per hectare production. While we have seen some entrepreneurial activity in the dairy and poultry segment, for instance, there’s much need for greater participation of the educated class in agribusiness. Soil and field analysis, planting, irrigation and spraying, crop- and livestock-monitoring can all make use of the technological developments, resulting in increased productivity.
We need to grow trees that have a positive impact on soil’s water level.
Agriculture is one of the most promising areas for use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones. For instance, agriculture drones can spray 40–60% faster than manual spraying with saving 30–50% in chemicals, according to a research by Meticulous Research. The agricultural drone and analytical industries are seeing a rapid expansion in different corners of the worlds. The reason is simple: There is pressure on the global food supply and innovation is welcome. An MIT Technology Review has also highlighted some of the ways drones can be effectively used in agriculture. Pakistan also recently gave a green-light to the country’s drone policy, including for use in agriculture and urban planning. Some provincial agricultural departments have also devised SOPs for obtaining permission for the safe use of UAVs in agriculture.
Everyone has to eat — rich or poor, voters or elected officials. The policymakers need to take right decisions at the right time, while encouraging healthy participation from the private sector.
Time is critical. The global food demand is increasing. Let’s smartly grow more healthy food and livestock — not only for our nation but also for the world. We have the land and the climate — all we need is sincerity from policymakers, some sacrifice from the families influencing the agribusiness, and innovative hard work from the youth.