The Modernization of Agriculture
Agriculture has a very strong forward linkage with industries as it provides raw material for textile, leather and other sectors. It has also very robust backward linkage with downstream industries by consumption and utilization of various chemicals (pesticide, insecticide, fertilizers, etc.) and mechanical inputs (tractors and other agri-implements). In addition, public infrastructure investment in on-farm and off-form sectors tremendously helps in creating employment and checking highly pernicious rural-urban migration of labour and population.
This huge strategic significance of agriculture for Pakistan’s socioeconomic and political development warrants holistic reforms in order to have inclusive and equitable prosperity of our homeland.
Realization of the fullest potential of agriculture is being constrained by multi-faceted and multi-dimensional bottlenecks. Policy and administrative neglect, shrinking arable land due to urbanization and desertification, worsening water shortage, large-scale population and labour migration to cities – in effect, persistent labour shortage – changing precipitation patterns, weather shifts and inflationary pressure on inputs in the form of higher input cost, stagnant cereal and cotton yield, rapidly diminishing soil fertility and productivity, salinity and waterlogging, shrinking of landholding caused by inheritance-caused fragmentation, defective marketing system and resultant price distortions and glut formation, declining efficiency of public irrigation infrastructure, inadequate credit facilities and poor coordination between research, teaching and extension services of the agriculture sector, are some issues to be named. These factors have combined to create serious issues: Pakistan is no longer self-sufficient in wheat (against the revised target of 27.5 million tons for the year 2020, Pakistan harvested 25.2448 million tons wheat, thereby creating flour crisis and importation of wheat); cotton yield has been declining, and thus hurting national economy, for the last many years (7 million bales in 2020-21 against the requirement of almost 14 million bales); Basmati rice, Pakistan’s jugular vein of agri-exports ($2.2 billion worth annual export) is also facing a serious threat by ongoing litigation in EU Commission as India had applied for exclusive monopoly over the marketing of Basmati rice in European Union market. These structural, policy, budgetary, administrative and technological deficiencies are bound to hurt Pakistan unless addressed on a war-footing.
Technological transformation of agriculture, or smart agriculture, is what we need on an emergency basis. Only technology can ensure the expansion in the productivity and efficiency of the inputs applied and of provision of food and fiber to the rapidly-growing population of Pakistan. Some key technologies such as precision farming, sensor technology and vertical farming can be used to expand the resource base of agriculture, and thus help resolve many lingering issues that traditional farming practices have failed to overcome.
Precision farming is one of the most-sought-after interventions to improve the agricultural output. It provides real-time data and information from GPS-satellite which helps farmers make informed decisions regarding the rate and timing of application of various inputs like fertilizers and irrigation. It is not a new thing because as much as 80% of Australian farmers and 70% of those in the United States use these tools. The use of drones is also getting momentum abroad, and Pakistan’s agriculture, which suffers from gross fertilizer and irrigation inefficiencies, is in dire need of this technology. It is heartening that the incumbent government has hinted to adopt measures in this regard. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently approved the establishment of a Civil Drone Authority, separating drones from the jurisdiction of Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority. The Ministry of Science & Technology had already announced back in March 2021 that the government had manufactured a drone specifically designed for performing agronomical practices. This drone could spray 16 liters of pesticide in 18 minutes, thereby covering 10 acres within an hour. With the introduction of various incentives – tax breaks, waiving off tariffs and elimination of red-tapism – Pakistan can provide a huge market for domestic and foreign companies to invest in drone manufacturing. Competition would bring down the prices, thereby making them affordable for our farmers. The customized application of different inputs tailored to the specific requirements of the soil would go a long way in maintaining soil fertility, enhancing crop productivity and saving precious resources of agricultural communities of Pakistan.
It is pertinent to mention here that a farmer has to make 40 key decisions during the lifespan of a single crop. These decisions are critical as they eventually determine crop yield and sustainability of soil fertility. Generally, Pakistani farmers take these decisions based upon observation which can be inaccurate and may lead to losses in terms of wastage of scarce resources and reduced crop yield.
Sensor technology can help farmers make informed decisions based on remote monitoring via sensors attached to mobile phones or other devices. This technology helps farmers accurately determine soil acidity, moisture content, water retention, nutrient level, soil type, crop health (disease, weed and insect infestation), wind speed, rainfall pattern, humidity and much other soil and atmospheric variables vital from crop productivity and long-term soil fertility. A farmer can take strategic decisions at the farm level, and operational decisions at the plant level. Fortunately, the Punjab government has started taking steps in this regard. In 2020, Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) launched a pilot project to use artificial intelligence (AI) to measures soil and environmental variables. Different sensors were used which were connected to a laptop or smartphone. Later on, PITB expanded the project to districts of Vehari, Sargodha and Layyah. The system was designed to measure site-specific requirements of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation, and thereby helping farmers apply the customized rate of these inputs. One can hope that the government further expands the project and encourages farmers to adopt this innovation through subsidies and other incentives.
AI-controlled vertical farming is another exciting innovation that can potentially alleviate climate change and associated risks our food production systems are faced with. In this type of farming, vertical farms are built where crops are grown in vertically-stacked layers. AI monitors light, water and temperature requirement, and the optimal amount of these inputs are provided.
Other soilless farming techniques for instance hydroponics (growing of plants in water supplied with required nutrients) can be integrated with this farming. The controlled environment can, thus, ensure extremely efficient utilization of resources – 90% less water and 99% less soil as compared to conventional farming – with 400 times more crop yield. We can reap a yield of 720 acres from only 2 acres of a vertical farm. This type of farming can address the issues of climate change as we will be able to control environmental variables according to the specific requirement of the crops. In addition, the issues of deforestation and human-led encroachment to the wild areas can also be resolved effectively. Because of the rapidly-growing population and slow momentum of the Green Revolution, it can be asserted that vertical farming is the panacea to all current challenges and risks that threaten the food security of human beings. The only downside of this approach is that it is prohibitively expensive — 850 times costlier than conventional farming — but with government interventions and R&D, this approach can be made affordable for large corporations and government-controlled entities. There is no denying that such out-of-the-box and resource-efficient technological solutions can ensure the sustenance of human civilization on Earth.
Improvement in the agri-food value chain is another much-needed intervention to help agriculture grow sustainably. The food value chain consists of the supply of inputs, production, storage and transport, processing, trading, distribution and consumption. Pakistan’s agri-food chain is defective and causes market distortion and glut formation. This leads to smaller export market, low income at all levels, persistent threats to the country’s food security and national economy and loss of employment for small landholders. In this regard, capacity-building of all stakeholders – input suppliers, farmers, transporters, processors and traders – must be done. Training of processors and traders on sanitary and phyto-sanitary protocol and international certifications is the most important to meet international requirements for exports. The establishment of credit lines for offering concessional loans for strengthening storage and transport infrastructure to avoid post-harvest losses and glut market should also be considered seriously by our policymakers. Farmers should be encouraged to establish cooperative societies for accessing cutting-edge agricultural technologies.
Government should also focus on the agricultural engineering sector so as to manufacture implements for many un-mechanized practices like direct plantation of rice, sowing of setts for sugarcane plantation, etc. Integrated and holistic government-led interventions in bringing efficiency and innovation at every level of the food value chain can go a long way in neutralizing the ever-looming threats of food insecurity, economic slowdown and acute poverty. Making the food value chain socially, economically and environmentally sustainable is an ongoing project of the World Bank; our government can tap this financing to address various risks associated with this domain.
The policy, legislative and regulatory ecosystem of Pakistan’s agriculture is also not suitable for making this sector a true engine of growth. Livestock is the largest subsector of agriculture. It contributed 60.1% to total agricultural value addition and 11.5% to GDP in FY2020-21. Despite this self-evident importance, our policymakers are incorrigibly and unfathomably preoccupied with the crop sector. Though wheat and other crops are strategically important for Pakistan’s food security and economy, livestock does deserve its treatment on merit. Major chunks of resources go to the crop sector at the cost of livestock sector that is left struggling to meet its recurrent expenditure, not to speak of initiating projects to tap the huge Halal meat market by overcoming epidemiological (foot and mouth disease, etc.) and financial constraints. Budgetary allocation for agriculture is prohibitively low that provides little fiscal space for launching ambitious crop productivity programs. In FY 2021, the Punjab government allocated PKR 39 billion, out of which PKR 31 billion will be utilized for non-development purposes and the remaining 8 billion have been earmarked for developmental objectives which are awfully inadequate to undertake the technological transformation of agriculture. In addition, research and development (R&D) which is indispensable for the development of varieties and breeds adaptable for vagaries of climate change has always been a neglected area and gets peanuts as compared to other sectors. Agricultural scientists working in research institutions are extremely disincentivized to compete with private sectors and the bureaucratic structure there is hindering the optimal utilization of the state resources. There is an urgent need to review the organizational setup and restructure these institutions in order to incentivize efficiency and performance and punish inefficiency vis-à-vis the development of varieties and breeds. Teaching, research, and extension are three pillars of agriculture. Unfortunately, all these pillars are disconnected and suffer from a lack of institutionalized coordination and collaboration mechanism. The non-integration of the agriculture development program in national development strategies has always hurt the long-term growth perspective of Pakistan. Though the incumbent Finance Minister, Shoukat Tarin, has included agriculture in those key sectors that the government will develop under planning-based short-, medium- and long-term economic programs to ensure sustainable growth, he failed to come up with well-delineated strategies to materialize his ambitious goal. Nonetheless, this is the right step in the right direction and will certainly help mitigate the long-held grievances of the agricultural community.
Support price mechanism should be tailored to bring about efficiency in market dynamics, spur broad-based rural development and ensure consumer protection and economic sustainability. Every year, the Punjab government allocates substantial resources for public procurement of wheat to maintain strategic reserves, control flour prices and address the possible wheat crisis. The government then releases gradually the stocked wheat at a subsidized rate to flour mills. This public procurement and guaranteed price have helped sustain wheat production, but this support price mechanism is causing food circular debt in Punjab. Last year, the government purchased 3.4 million tons of wheat at the support price of PKR 1800 that cost 160 billion, and that pushed food circular debt to a staggering PKR 560 billion. The main thrust behind this relentless increase in debt is that government does not include incidentals like the cost of gunny bags, transportation charges, fumigation cost, pilferage in public stock, and interest on the loan in issue price. This is unsustainable and does not achieve the intended target also. This mechanism has prevented farmers from shifting to more nutritious and lucrative crops and hindered the market from working efficiently. Instead of support price, the government should either announce an intervention price that should be activated in case farmers are not getting minimum price in the market or should gradually decrease public procurement while maintaining the strategic reserve. Cotton crop is one such case where the government has fixed its intervention price that would be activated when the market fails to offer a satisfactory price to farmers.
Agriculture must grow at 5% annually to sustain 7-8% GDP growth that is essential for poverty reduction and requisite employment generation to properly capitalize on the youth bulge. The widespread stunted growth in Pakistan — 38% of children under five years of age are stunted — does warrant holistic public policies and administrative measures to transform agriculture technologically, economically and environmentally. Cross-departmental and inter-provincial collaboration under centrally-supervised long-term planning; improvement in the legislative, administrative and regulatory business atmosphere; accelerated technology transfer under Working on Agriculture of CPEC; government-led facilitation for the establishment of farmers’ cooperative societies; provision of subsidized and collateral-free loans to subsistence farming families; expansion in the asset-transfer schemes; establishment of mouth and foot disease-free zones and value addition under CPEC to tap multi-billion dollars Halal market should be given topmost priorities in the policymaking process at the national and provincial level. We can ill-afford the suboptimal performance of agriculture and stagnant economic growth and development that may ensue.
The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.