Pakistan’s agriculture sector has been facing several problems in the wake of achieving low efficiency and productivity, putting an increased number of people at grave risk of food insecurity. Except for a couple of agriculture crops such as rice and corn, all major crops such as wheat, sugarcane and cotton did not meet domestic demands, forcing the country to spend around $3 billion on imports to fulfil the domestic demands.
The poor performance of the agriculture sector has spiked inflationary pressures, thus lingering wheat and sugar crises would cause political repercussions in weeks and months ahead. However, stakeholders in the agriculture sector identified several challenges, including persistent confusions between the centre and provinces in the aftermath of the18th Amendment, which devolved agriculture as a provincial subject.
Other issues they argued were lack of protection of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), primitive laws, poor enforcement of laws and regulations, no long-term plans, lack of investment enabling policies, low acceptance of modern technologies, and low government investment in infrastructure development. All these issues they said were major stumbling blocks that kept the agriculture sector from performing better.
Pakistan’s cotton and wheat crops have continued to decline. The Pakistan Cotton Ginners Association reports a 35 percent decline in cotton production, while wheat is estimated to have dropped by 15-20 percent. Although many factors contribute towards the dismal performance of these crops – including antiquated farming practices, lack of expertise and research, rising input prices and climate change – chief among them is the quality of seed available in the market.
Farmers’ livelihood depends on good harvests. Drought, high-winds, insects and diseases result in lower yield and poor harvests. Sound agronomic practices and technology go a long way in safeguarding against crop loss. However, seed is the most vital input for crop production. The simplest way to significantly increase crop yield is to plant better quality seeds; there is no substitute for quality seeds that are genetically pure and free from seed borne diseases. On the other hand, low quality or counterfeit seeds jeopardise crop yield as well as the quality of produce.
Agri-science and technology has rapidly advanced in the past two decades. New hybrid varieties have been developed – and constantly being improved – to adapt to unfavourable climatic conditions and resist diseases and pests to improve crop yields. Biotechnology has also enabled farmers to grow crops that have beneficial traits such as resistance to herbicides, insects, adverse conditions and weather anomalies.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, substandard, unapproved and fake seed varieties have permeated the market. This is especially true in the case of cotton. Biotech or BT cotton was introduced in Pakistan through illegal means back in 2005-06. Since the seeds were introduced without proper stewardship, they lost their efficacy, which not only diminished the potential of BT cotton and reduced its effectiveness against severe cotton-related pests, but also deterred technology providers from entering the cotton market in Pakistan. Wheat crop faces similar challenges, including shortage of certified, quality seed in the market. This coupled with unfavourable weather conditions has significantly hampered wheat production these past few years.
Cotton and wheat have recently shown disastrous results. On the other hand, the only success story in row crops has been that of maize, almost exclusively through intensive efforts of the research-based seed companies which introduced improved hybrid seeds and conducted farmer education programmes.
There are over 750 seed companies registered with the federal government, most of which are either defunct or lack capacity to invest in seed development research. To make matters worse, there are numerous examples of germplasm or proprietary seed varieties being stolen in Pakistan. This obviously deters credible seed companies and technology providers from investing in research and development and seed production in the country.
A vibrant local seed industry is crucial for our agriculture sector. Therefore, the local seed industry, in particular, should look to invest in seed breeding programmes and find ways to address challenges faced by today’s farmers.
The importance of genuine, quality seeds cannot be stressed enough. The inability to fully understand and utilise the technology resulted in our cotton crop problems. The cotton crop experience is the stark reminder of how technology stewardship was compromised in the hands of seed marketers that did not have the capacity or intent to fulfil stewardship requirements.
Therefore, it is imperative that the government ensures the provision of quality certified seeds by incentivising seed companies to invest in the research and development of improved seed varieties in ailing crops such as cotton and wheat.
Even before the onset of the novel coronavirus, an estimated 21 million people in Pakistan were already facing acute food security; while food was 16 percent more expensive in November 2019 compared to the previous year (UN World Food Program). Climate change and environmental shocks have increased the intensity of extreme weather events such unprecedented heat-waves and unusual rain spells. To make matters worse, severe locust infestations in the region this year also affected domestic food production.
The rise of digital agriculture and its related technologies has opened a wealth of new data opportunities and has the potential to change agriculture for the better. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates, by 2050 Internet of Things (IoT) can help increase agricultural productivity by 70 percent. Technologies such as laser land levelling, solar-powered high efficiency irrigation systems, smart water grids and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are now being used for agriculture.
Leveraging drone technology in agriculture will enable farmers to increase their productivity through improved pest management and increased precision. Globally, the usage of agricultural drones is growing due to their increasing applications such as aerial mapping, plant health monitoring, soil analysis and weed detection. In China alone, the number of agriculture drones has more than doubled within a year to over 50,000. Pakistan must also make use of these innovative technologies for improved productivity and resource management.
Recent advancements in biotechnology also offer significant improvements on top of conventional plant-breeding techniques. The use of high-yielding crops that are resistant to diseases, pests and adverse weather conditions can potentially help alleviate poverty, conserve the environment and ensure food security – especially for developing economies.
Gene-editing technology, known as CRISPR, allows scientists to solve a range of food-related concerns: increased yields, disease resistance and even tackling allergens like gluten. For example, non-browning apples have been cultivated using this tool which will help reduce food waste – 40 percent of all conventional apples grown are never eaten but are wasted. Similarly, short stature corn, made possible through gene-editing, is another variety that allows for greater planting density whilst proving resilient in challenging weather conditions.
Pakistan, unfortunately, has dragged its feet when it comes to embracing new technologies. While other developing economies have embraced innovations in precision agriculture, farm automation, transgenic crops, modern greenhouses etc, most of our agriculture is rooted in traditional farming and antiquated practices. The recent locust attack highlights this widening gap between Pakistan and progressive economies; while the world has shifted to UAVs to combat these situations, Pakistan hasn’t been able to keep up with the pace of modern technology.
Even in the case of biotechnology, despite heavy public-sector investment for the research and education of the technology, formal commercialisation of biotech crops remains a distant reality due to policy disconnects at various levels of the government.
The writer is a staff member