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December 24, 2011

Building a knowledge economy


December 24, 2011

Agriculture represents the backbone of our economy. It can serve as a launching pad for transition to a knowledge economy, as it has a huge potential for revenue generation. But that can happen only if agricultural practices are carried out on scientific lines and use of technology maximised. The four major crops of Pakistan are wheat, rice, cotton and sugarcane. They contribute about 37 percent of the total agricultural income and about nine percent to the GDP of Pakistan.
Because of the wide fluctuations in productivity, the contribution to GDP has been variable, making it imperative to diversify our crops in order to have stable agricultural income and a predictable GDP. The minor crops in Pakistan include vegetables, fruits, oil seeds and pulses. There is a high growth potential in vegetables, fruits, flowers, livestock and fisheries that can be tapped through proper planning and technological inputs but this potential remains largely untapped because of lack of visionary leadership and proper planning.
Wheat is the most important crop of Pakistan, with the largest acreage. It contributes about three percent to the GDP. The national average yield is about 2.7 tons per hectare, whereas in Egypt the yields are 6.44 tons per hectare and in European countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom they are above seven tons per hectare. We presently produce about Rs220 billion worth of wheat. If we can boost our yields to match those of Egypt, it can generate another Rs350 billion, allowing us to systematically pay off the national debt and make available funding for health and education.
However, the government has been reluctant to invest in research, water reservoirs and dams and extension services so that the country continues to suffer. Some progressive farmers in irrigated areas have been able to obtain yields of 6-8 tons per hectare but they are very much a minority. In rain-fed areas the yields are normally between 0.5 tons to 1.3 tons

per hectare, depending on the region and amount of rainfall. In irrigated areas the yields are normally higher, in the range of 2.5 tons to 3.0 tons per hectare. Improved semi-dwarf cultivars that are available in Pakistan can afford a yield of wheat between 6-8 tons per hectare. It is possible to increase the yields substantially with better extension services, judicious use of fertilisers and pesticides, and greater access of water from storage reservoirs and dams that need to be constructed.
Cotton represents an important fibre crop of Pakistan that generates about Rs250 billion to the national economy, and contributing about two percent to the national GDP. Pakistan is the fourth-largest producer of cotton in the world, but it is ranked at 10th in the world in terms of yields. The use of plant biotechnology can help to develop better cotton varieties. Bt cotton produces a pesticide internally and safeguards the plant against chewing insects. The yields of Pakistani seed cotton and cotton fibre are both about half those of China. A doubling of cotton yields is doable and it can add another Rs250 billion to the national economy.
Pakistan produces about 6.5 million tons of rice each year. Our yields are however very low, being only about 1.7 tons per hectare, compared to 7.4 tons per hectare produced by the USA, and 6.59 tons per hectare produced by China. Similarly, our yields of maize (about 1.7 tons per hectare) are less than a quarter of those obtained in France (8.2 tons per hectare). The yields of sugarcane in Pakistan range from 40 tons per hectare in Punjab to 60 tons per hectare in Sindh, which are dismally low compared to Egypt’s 120 tons per hectare.
Pakistan needs to fund biotechnology research programmes in order to increase yields. India established a separate Department of Biotechnology in 1986 that supports about 5,000 scientists each year, provides funds to some 4,000 postdoctoral students, and its initiatives have led to some 5,000 publications. Indian exports of biotechnology-based products are expected to reach $5 billion in 2012 and exceed $50 billion within 15 years. Pakistan needs to tax agricultural income and then invest 30 percent of the tax collected into agricultural research and into the strengthening of extension services.
Pakistan faces tough times ahead as water shortage will have devastating consequences by 2050 due to global warming. We need to prepare ourselves now for the tough years ahead. Initially, global warming will cause large-scale melting of snow on mountains, leading to huge floods. This water must be captured and stored in dams and water reservoirs so that we are adequately prepared for long periods of draught that will occur in subsequent decades.
Unfortunately, science, technology and innovation receive the lowest priority in Pakistan, and loot and plunder is the order of the day. In order to emerge from the trap of poverty, we require a visionary, honest and technologically competent government. Our present system of democracy has been a complete failure as it has allowed largely the most corrupt to come into power. These leaders have looted and plundered the nation while the poor masses have groaned under the weight of rising prices and lack of job opportunities, till they are finally driven to sell their children, commit suicide or become criminals.
The judgments of the Supreme Court are ignored and ridiculed by corrupt politicians without any contempt-of-court action against them. Gangs of criminals roaming the streets of Karachi and other cities get away scot-free as they are protected by corrupt politicians – the witnesses are either killed or threatened into silence. The judges of our courts are also fearful of their lives and I know some who have resigned their positions because of the threats on their lives.
The failed system of democracy in Pakistan is strongly supported by Western governments. It serves Western interests as it leads to docile and submissive leaders who serve their foreign masters loyally. The stranglehold of the feudal system thrives with no priority given to education. More than parliamentarians have forged degrees and the degrees of another 250 are suspect. The Supreme Court decision of verification of their degrees is flouted and ignored by the Election Commission. The bigger the crook, the more respect he is given by the government and the biggest crooks are conferred the highest civil awards. The economy has nosedived and we are today ranked among the bottom six countries of the world in terms of our expenditure on education.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, former federal minister for science and technology and former chairman of the Higher Education Commission. Email: [email protected]

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