The current challenge of wheat shortage is surmountable
heat is our primary/ staple diet, and the major source of calories. Our food intake remains incomplete without a wheat chapati (bread). Considering 125 kg/ head/ year, we need more than 30 MMT (million metric tonnes) of wheat to feed our current population of 220 million, in addition to about 2 MMT for our neighbours.
The political economy of the country revolves around an affordable supply of wheat flour. Needless to mention, the subsidised staple is provided without discrimination to all segments of society (a five-star hotel or a tandoor in a slum). More than $2 billion have been spent on wheat imports during the past 20 months.
Our wheat production from 21/ 22 million acres has stagnated around 26-27 MMT (a metric tonne is 25 maunds). The wheat acreage has been declining due to competition with oilseed crops and is bound to decline further due to floods.
Historically, we have seen years of impressive progress in wheat yields. The pre-Green Revolution average productivity was 8 maund/ acre (i.e. 0.8 MT/ hectare). This went up to 30 maunds/ acre. The current country average has remained around the figure; the progressive growers are harvesting 50 plus.
The experiment station average is 60-70 and the demonstrated potential is >90. There are inter-provincial and inter-district differences in yields. A water stressed district of Bahawalnagar, for instance, has an average yield of 38 mds/acre while a rich sweet water zone district of Narowal (the home district of federal minister for planning) produces 23 mds/acre. The yield figure across the river from Narowal on the Indian side is 50. We cannot break the stagnation without addressing the causes of such disparities in yields.
The difference in the output is largely attributable to imperfect adoption of technology. That includes timely agronomic operations (sowing and irrigation, fertiliser and weedicide applications) in right quantities. A critical factor is the choice of crop variety and seed quality (purity, germination and vigour).
While the technology ‘off-the-shelf’ is sufficient to break the stagnation, many a times awareness is insufficient. The market signals/ profitability, including the minimum support price (MSP) promote wider adoption of technology. The success of maize crop is a case of ‘scale neutral’ technology adoption catalysed by the market. The technology adoption in rice is also happening fast. That transition has yet to occur for wheat. The announcement of Rs 4,000 per 40kg as minimum support price (MSP) by the Sindh province is a ‘watershed moment’.
The Wheat Campaign-2022 started on October 28 and is continuing through the month of November. It is a sequel of Wheat Campaign-2021 which was highly appreciated (credit to the agriculture minister and secretary). The University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, joined hands with the Punjab government’s Agriculture Extension Wing. The other two agriculture universities in the province and colleges also took part.
More than 50,000 students were in the field (in their hometowns and villages) for 10 days, going door to door, reminding the communities of our food security challenge. The academic activity on the campus was suspended and >1,000 faculty and staff were also in the field. The political leadership was on board across party lines.
Considering the population challenge, competing crops and import of essential commodities, feeding the people with wheat alone may not work for long. We are promoting the idea of diversifying the food intake. The trend for higher intake of rice is obvious.
The provincial Agriculture Extension Wing has a strength of 3,000. Nearly every one of the 23,000 villages in the Punjab was combed and awakened. A movement akin to the Green Revolution days facilitated then by Radio Pakistan has been achieved.
The message is to Grow More Wheat to curb the import of the essential staple. That can happen if we capture the sowing time within the month of November, use certified seed, drill the seed instead of broadcasting, ensure balanced use of fertiliser and right time of weedicide application and irrigation. Delayed sowing, beyond November 20, is known to cause 15-20 kg yield losses per acre with every passing day.
The campaign trail has been full of activities, i.e. road shows, corner meetings, farm demonstrations, women education by women and large gatherings at the district and tehsil levels. The campaigners were equipped with a range of promotional material, i.e., banners, handbills, audio/ visual aids.
Nearly 50 percent of the campaigners were female students. Each student was given survey tools to gather data to make the expedition fruitful. The benefit flows both ways; the farmers are educated and there is experiential learning for the students. We intend to equip students with satellite image analysis as a follow-up to their expeditions.
A quick lesson is that the farmers are keen to improve their lot but face several constraints. The farmers complain about the lack of machinery, prices of diesel oil, seed and fertiliser but there is hardly a voice heard about the lack of credit. Seemingly, the farmers have given up on delivery of formal credit and are content with the expensive informal sources.
Wheat is being planted in succession after rice, cotton, sugarcane, maize and Kharif fodders. Sowing in the rice belt is delayed due to lack of machinery to handle the plant residues and restrictions on burning. In the first week of November, 90 percent of rice was harvested in Hafizabad district and fields were ready for wheat sowing while at the same time 90 percent of the rice crop was yet to be harvested in the nearby Narowal district.
The sowing in Vehari district will be delayed because of the revival of cotton and the very pricy last picking. The sowing in the sugarcane fields is subject to the beginning of cane crushing by the sugar mills. A striking difference in research infrastructure is observed between the north central Punjab and south Punjab. Lahore, Gujranwala and Gujrat divisions lack research facilities. Clearly, the south Punjab is an agriculturally better served region than other parts of the country.
On the campaign trail, we attempted to make the farmers aware about growing soybean as a Kharif crop substitute to rice, maize and sugarcane. It has a shorter duration and a legume (regenerative crop) could be a better crop to be followed by wheat in early November. The import of soybean is equally worrisome as an essential commodity. Alternating maize and soybean is a norm in some developed economies. India has successfully introduced soybean as an alternative crop to rice by offering handsome incentives.
The current challenge of wheat shortage is surmountable. However, considering the population challenge, competing crops and import of essential commodities, feeding the people with wheat alone may not work for long. We are promoting the idea of diversifying the food intake. The trend for higher intake of rice is obvious. The consumption of potatoes has been rising. But there is very little direct consumption of maize (18kg/ head/ year). Blending maize and wheat flour offers a long-term solution.
The writer is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad