Seeds for survival

By Mariam Saleem
September 20, 2023

Nestled in the heart of South Asia, Pakistan’s fertile lands bear witness to an agrarian economy that not only constitutes a formidable 24 per cent of the nation’s GDP but also provides a source of livelihood for half of its labour force.

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As the global stage watches, Pakistan stands tall among the elite, ranking among the world’s top 10 producers of vital crops such as wheat, cotton, sugarcane and rice.

Despite its global agricultural prowess, Pakistan teeters on the precipice of famine, ranking 99th out of 121 on the 2022 Global Hunger Index. Alarmingly, 20 per cent of Pakistanis are undernourished, while nearly a quarter of the population lives below the national poverty line. The Food and Agricultural Organization has labelled Pakistan as a ‘very high concern’ in its 2023 ‘Hunger Hotspots’ report.

Pakistan’s agricultural woes are closely tied to the harsh realities of climate change. Despite contributing less than 1.0 per cent of the world’s carbon footprint, the nation ranks the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change. Shifting weather patterns, rising temperatures, erratic monsoons and glacier melt bear climate change’s unmistakable fingerprints.

The devastating floods of 2022 affected over 38 million Pakistanis, destroying four million acres of crops, causing $30 billion in losses. Yet, it was not just the floods that threatened lives; hunger became a silent assailant as the harsh floods robbed communities of sustenance meant to last up to a year.

The record-breaking floods would have devastated any country, let alone a struggling nation like Pakistan. But the harrowing reality is that these floods were far from an isolated incident. Climate change is not sparing Pakistan’s crops: by 2040, rising temperatures could slash agricultural production by 8–10 per cent, exacerbating income and food security issues. With a five-degree C temperature rise by the century’s end, Asia could face a 50 per cent wheat loss, leaving Pakistan especially vulnerable.

The seed, the very foundation of agriculture, the source from which all life begins, and the cornerstone for the sustainability and future of agriculture, constitutes a vital input for crop production. Therefore, the availability of high-quality seeds serves as a linchpin for upholding food security in the nation. However, our seeds are plagued by a multitude of shortcomings.

Pakistan’s Seed Act, 1976 (the ‘1976 Act’), the primary legislation regulating the seed industry, has been modernized through the Seed (Amendment) Act, 2015 and the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act, 2016. But these amendments bare considerable insufficiencies as they operate under a set of their own limitations, lacking both necessary infrastructure to implement its provisions as well as regulatory clarity, creating uncertainty. In turn, these laws, insufficiently analyzed, raise concerns about their impact on small-scale and female farmers.

Additionally, the tug-of-war between compliance and competition often forces stakeholders into the informal seed sector, where quality control is a blind spot. Certified seeds, crucially limited to major crops like wheat, rice and cotton, neglect minor crops, leaving them without certified options.

This has led many breeders to sidestep the federal seed certification and registration department (FSC&RD), Pakistan’s oversight body for seed quality. The outcome? Poor seed quality, subpar crop yields, and a consistent underperformance of Pakistani crops compared to global averages.

The 18th Amendment which granted provinces more autonomy over agriculture and food security has been undermined by the persistent influence of federal powers and a convoluted division of legislative roles.

This confusion has evolved into a significant obstacle, causing frustrating delays in updating crucial legislation. It has also led to increased reliance on the informal sector for seed distribution, exacerbating policy ambiguities and hindering essential advancements in the agricultural market.

A comprehensive reform of Pakistan’s agricultural framework is urgently needed to ensure a fair, sustainable, and inclusive future for the nation’s agriculture. Key recommendations encompass several crucial areas.

First, aligning governance and legal systems with global standards, redefining the state’s role, and promoting research and development are paramount. Second, prioritizing climate information dissemination, safeguarding the rights of small-scale and female farmers, countering exploitative practices, and ensuring equitable access to high-quality inputs are vital steps forward.

Third, active participation of farmers and their representative organizations in policymaking is essential to enhance the fairness and effectiveness of agricultural and environmental legislation. Additionally, addressing resource constraints, improving remuneration, enhancing infrastructure, and ensuring the smooth functioning of vital services like seed quality testing and regulatory enforcement are crucial for success.

Encouraging investment in the seed sector, embracing food sovereignty as a national priority, and swiftly adopting climate-smart agriculture practices, including modernizing irrigation, capacity building, crop diversification, and soil conservation, are all imperative for safeguarding food security and mitigating climate impacts.

As COP28 approaches, Pakistan must take bold steps to transform its agricultural practices. The inextricable link between agriculture and our collective survival, demands governments to lead the charge on food security, forging a path towards sustainability and resilience. Today’s choices will echo through generations, shaping our future. Together, we sow the seeds of resilience to ensure a sustainable tomorrow.

The writer is an Islamabad-based lawyer and graduate from King’s College London. She can be reached at: mariam12saleemgmail.com

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