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Wednesday February 21, 2024

Pakistan’s climate heroes

December 11, 2023

As many as 40 million Pakistanis, roughly one in every six individuals, go to bed hungry each night. Couple that with extreme weather conditions, rising cost of living, and water scarcity, and you have a disheartening recipe of compounding challenges that cast a long shadow over the nation’s wellbeing.

But what if there was a single, unassuming word, resounding with profound potential, that could present itself as a holistic solution to tackle these interrelated challenges at once?

Nature’s gifted crops – the planet’s sustainable protein superheroes – pulses provide a third of global dietary protein. These smart crops are affordable, nutrient-rich, and eco-friendly. They enhance soil health, reduce fertilizer use, and aid in carbon sequestration.

This picture shows a person o a field with a tractor in the background. — AFP/File
This picture shows a person o a field with a tractor in the background. — AFP/File

Their economic viability, low resource requirements, and benefits in crop rotation can boost farm income, disrupt disease cycles, ensure food security, and support sustainable agriculture. Thriving in challenging conditions, they are remarkably water-efficient, a lifeline for water-scarce regions like Pakistan.

Until 2008, Pakistan was a pulse exporter. However, in response to the 2006 global grain shortage, the government imposed a 35 per cent export tax and eventually banned all pulse exports, in an attempt to secure domestic food supplies.

Today, pulse production is a meagre 382,000 tons, while total annual consumption is estimated at 1.3 million tons, leading to a nearly $1 billion import cost. So then why is it that even in the face of this bursting local demand and the government’s immense financial commitment to fulfill it, Pakistani farmers are reluctant to embrace pulse cultivation and in fact every year pulse yields are declining?

In the 1960s, the green revolution reshaped Pakistan’s agriculture with high-yield wheat and rice varieties, heavily supported by the government, offering profitable international trade prospects.

Consequently, farmers concentrated on these cash crops, neglecting pulses due to perceived high risks and a lack of focus on yield improvement. This relegated legume production so far into the background that today local demand remains significantly unmet.

The public sector’s failure to provide high-quality source seeds, limited private-sector involvement in seed production and distribution, and a complete lack of institutional support have resulted in a shortage of improved seed varieties, with seed corporations primarily focusing on cereals and cotton.

In over seven decades since Independence, only a few pulse varieties have been released for commercial use. Currently, about 80 per cent of pulse crops use farmer-saved seeds due to inadequate seed improvements. A survey found that half of farmers rely on open grain market seeds, a quarter use saved seeds, and only 2.0 per cent buy from registered dealers or companies.

Similarly, 85 per cent of chickpea growers use seed from previous crops, leading to lower productivity. In FY22, Pakistan needed 42,674 metric tons of certified pulse seed, but only 3,182 metric tons were available.

In Pakistan, the lack of specialized machinery for planting, harvesting, and threshing pulses hampers yields. Unlike in countries like Australia and Canada, where mechanical harvesting is common, in Pakistan, manual methods predominate, causing crop damage when using wheat threshers for pulses.

Labour shortages during pulse harvests worsen the issue. Post-harvest losses and underdeveloped value chains lead to significant price disparities. Shockingly, Pakistan suffers $1.3 billion in annual post-harvest losses, four times the combined agriculture budgets of the federal and Punjab governments, which amounts to approximately $250 million per year.

Pakistan’s consistent underinvestment in research and development (R&D) is a critical factor behind the nation’s ongoing struggles. Despite a wealth of international evidence underscoring the pivotal role of agricultural R&D in ensuring global food security and environmental sustainability, Pakistan has allocated a mere 0.18 per cent of its GDP to this vital sector.

This stands in stark contrast to its neighbouring countries, with India and China dedicating 0.3 per cent and 0.62 per cent of their GDP, respectively. As a result, Pakistan faces high production costs, low yields, and challenges in the international market due to outdated technology.

Moreover, the 18th Amendment, enacted in FY11, exacerbated R&D funding woes by transferring power to provinces, exposing gaps in sectoral growth, causing coordination and resource allocation issues, and service disparities. This lack of integrated planning strained trust between federal and provincial bodies, causing poor agricultural yields, notably in the pulse sector, and a sector-wide performance decline.

Today, Pakistan is in the firm grip of climate change, its impact unmistakable as heatwaves and erratic rainfall patterns wreak havoc across the nation, a factor critically important for pulse production, which is heavily reliant on rainfall. Yet, the policy framework does not support climate-smart agriculture and is marred by distortions and government inaction.

When a nation with a rich agricultural heritage fails to cultivate pulses, it lays bare the systemic flaws in its governance, administration, and agricultural policies. Pakistan’s prolonged neglect of food legumes by its policymakers has given rise to a jarring disparity between supply and demand, driving prices to unprecedented heights and burdening its federal reserves.

The reality, however, is that there are no insurmountable hurdles preventing the nation from realizing a thriving pulse production sector, provided that there is a robust policy framework to support it.

Reviving pulse production in Pakistan demands a multifaceted approach: enhancing seed availability with a focus on climate-resilient, disease-resistant varieties and nitrogen-fixing capabilities, swiftly adopting advanced farming tech, promoting shorter-duration pulse crops, encouraging intercropping, mechanizing farming, establishing public-private partnerships to reduce post-harvest losses, disseminating scientific knowledge, offering policy support for value addition, and reforming market structures.

The inability of those in positions of authority to keep pace with evolving trends and patterns has placed Pakistan at a critical crossroads, as the nation struggles to cope with food scarcity and economic crisis in the woes of climate change, emphasizing the urgent and pressing need for innovative solutions.

Relentless inflation has already rendered meat a luxury for many, leading citizens to rely on the ‘poor man’s meat’ or pulses. The crucial question remains: can Pakistan act decisively to prevent basic sustenance from becoming an unattainable extravagance for ordinary people?

The writer is a partner at Hassan Kaunain Nafees, Legal Practitioners & Advisers and a graduate from King’s College London. She can be reached at: mariam12saleem@gmail.com