By Mahnoor Saleem and Myra Ahmed
The agricultural sector in Pakistan constitutes more than 18.9% of Pakistan GDP, and is regarded as the second largest sector in terms of degree of production. It is for this reason that the industry has been dubbed 'the backbone of the Pakistani economy'. However, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of other challenges meant that the sector saw very little growth in the previous fiscal year. While, every sector faced severe jolts due to covid-19; agricultural landscape of Pakistan was indubitably one of the major collaterals. Analysts argue that such a fall was bound to happen, given the economic trends and failed long-term commitments to sustainable development of this sector. For instance, in 2011, the then Government of Pakistan spearheaded a promising plan by the name of ‘Cotton Vision 2015’. The primary objective of this vision was to increase the bales from 10.6 million in 2011 to a target of 20 million bales in 2015. Today, this vision is almost a decade old, yet we have to see it becoming practical. In fact, instead of achieving the vision in 2015, we are far below than where we were in 2011. This withering commitment to long-term plans is one of the fundamental problems when it comes to administering Pakistan’s agricultural sector. The country's farmers and their produce are not only a means of economic support, but also a source of pride for Pakistan on an international level; nothing makes an overseas Pakistani more happy than the label 'Made in Pakistan'. But to support the agricultural sector, we must know the agricultural sector, and that is what we shall explore in this week's article.
Agriculture plays a number of roles in emerging economies like that of Pakistan's: it is a necessary sector to provide food, incomes and inputs to production for individuals and businesses in the country, and therefore acts as the fundamental basis for all other economic activity. This also means that it is crucial that the agricultural sector not only be developed, but also supported to bring about sustainable growth and development. So what do we produce?
Major crop outputs in Pakistan include sugarcane, cotton, wheat and rice, and these are produced during different phases of the year. A report conducted by the Pakistan Economic Survey 2019-2020 highlighted that Wheat is one of the primary, self-reliant crops that can be produced in surplus and can sufficiently contribute towards foreign exchange earnings of the country. As it accounts for a massive chunk in the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as well as the overall agricultural sector, the contributions of the wheat crop contributions cannot be sidelined. Wheat is most prominently produced in the agricultural capital of Punjab, where irrigation systems are said to be most advanced. Punjab is at the heart of Pakistan's agricultural activity, producing a wide range of crops, but a number of structural issues mean that we continue to lag behind regional peers. A large proportion of subsistence farms, as reported by the 2016-2017 census, is one of these issues. While there are 5,249,800 agriculture farms in the region, majority of these are very small farms, with 42% owning less that 1 hector of land. Subsistence farming is where farmers produce is primarily used to feed and sustain the farmer themself and their family, and hence does not contribute massively to exports.
An empirical study of Pakistan's agricultural landscape from an economic lens highlights a number of other key points. Alongside wheat, which we have just discussed, we have one of Pakistan's most significant exports: rice. Pakistani Basmati rice are renowned across the world for their quality, and this is reflected in our trade figures; rice exports constitute the second highest source of income in Pakistan, fulfilling the food needs of approximately 60% of the country's population as well. Cotton also plays a key role. It is one of the country's core cash crops, and Pakistan is known as the world's largest exporter of raw cotton. It is important to point out here, however, that Pakistan's inability to increase the real value of its exports has had a negative impact on the country's development; while raw cotton is important and continues to play a central role in trade, Pakistan's exports can be made more competitive if we bring about technological progress and produce goods that have greater value in today's global market, and thereby bring in greater inflows when exported.
A number of social, political and economic factors influence Pakistan's agricultural landscape, but an often missed factor is that of the environment. Environmental changes are also directly influencing the agricultural landscape of Pakistan. Climate change, spontaneous floods and damaging outbreaks of locust swarms in the region have had detrimental impacts on yield. Climate change, while most prominently stimulated by more economically developed countries across the world, can have grave impacts on Pakistan's agriculture industry, bringing about increased extreme weather events and creating further obstacles in crop production. The most recent locust attack that was first recorded in the final quarter of 2019 instigated serious agricultural losses to the agricultural sector, as well.
The current government of Pakistan has initiated several programs to facilitate the farming community, such as: Punjab Fasal Bema Program, Strengthening Markets for Agriculture and Rural Transformation (SMART) Punjab Program, the introduction of E-Credit system and provision of subsidies on essential seeds and fertilizers. These programs are all focused on providing support to farmers at the risk of impact from natural disasters, providing financial support to encourage production, and using crop production to work to eradicate poverty within and beyond the country.
There is a dire need of extended agricultural facilities in Pakistan that go far beyond basic government grants and financial assistance to farmers. Most of the population residing in rural areas of the country is uneducated or illiterate, and while they form the backbone of Pakistan's economy, supporting them with better facilities, greater information sharing and the adoption of modern technology is critical to ensuring they remain the backbone of the Pakistani economy. Scientific methods of farming and regular use of modern irrigation and farming technology are virtually an alien concept to farmers in rural Pakistan, and factoring in things like training courses for farmers and launching an efficient administration of market organization on local and national levels, in addition to developing basic infrastructure for crop irrigation and storage, can be particularly beneficial in this regard. Pakistan is built on the basis of these farmers and their produce, and providing them support even with little investment can take the country a long way.
What do you think Pakistan's agricultural sector needs most? - this week's discussion!
Cover image via Financial Times