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Thursday December 09, 2021

Pakistan’s agricultural woes: The status of our agriculture system is like a ‘dead man walking’

September 13, 2021

Historically, several parts of the South Asian region, especially Punjab, have always remained naturally food surplus due to the abundance of resources. However, the irony is that the government has recently placed orders to import wheat and sugar.

According to the Economic Survey 2019-2020, agriculture contributed around 20 percent to annual GDP and is by far the largest sector to absorb most labour directly and indirectly. It is also the largest raw-material provider to many industries. Successive governments though have not addressed systemic problems faced by the sector, and as such food security of future generations is at stake. This has also negatively affected basic economic fundamentals like increased trade deficit and balance of payments. Because of this neglect, food prices and poverty have soared.

Meaningful macro and micro level interventions by the state have become indispensable to revitalise the agriculture sector, upgrade agriculture systems and increase yields. Subsidies have proved to be least effective to raise agricultural income; instead, the state should develop rural infrastructure, vocational agricultural training institutes and facilitation centers for farmers. Due to declining agricultural incomes, Pakistan has the highest rate of urbanization in South Asia. The major issue is how to encourage retention of youth in rural areas since rural Pakistanis are entering cities to seek new livelihoods and better basic services. Massive urbanization is destroying the fabric of big cities which are fast becoming hubs of gross inequality and are unlivable for many people.

Way forward & bottlenecks. Various attempts at land reforms and levying tax on agriculture have not borne fruit. We need to contemplate radical structural solutions to these problems.

One innovative solution to these complex issues is to give agriculture the status of an industry. Development of policy reforms and a legal regulatory framework, with a focus on strengthening of public-private partnerships, will be part of the agriculture uplift process.

Such measures will be potential drivers of agriculture development. Big industrial houses will bring in much needed investments, new technologies and quality human resource when they venture into agro-based businesses. Competition will further trigger the rural economy. Apart from crop production, the agriculture sub-sector comprises of raising animals for meat and milk, poultry and fish farming. They will flourish with the induction of corporate culture and professionalism. There is unlimited potential for export as Pakistani animal meat is most sought after in Iran and the Middle East.

The concept being advocated above is akin to “agricultural cluster” which is an advanced type of agricultural industrialization with a proven track record in advancing the specialization of agriculture production and increasing the income of farmers. Prior to execution of such major policy reforms, the farmers, agricultural community and all other stakeholders should be taken into confidence to circumvent reaction as it happened against the Indian government.

The United States, China, Holland, Poland and a couple of other European countries have been beneficiaries of agricultural industrialization.

Our policy makers, legislatures and business leaders need to delve deeper into recommended agricultural innovations highlighted above. We may not be able to change the fate of the agriculture sector and farmers overnight, but steps in the right direction will pay off in the long run.

Muhammad Ijaz-ul-Haq is President of PML-Z and Muhammad Tariq is PPL's former board member, ex-director marketing of Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital. The authors are avid followers of international agricultural practices.