Poor technology uptake is seriously limiting productivity improvement in agriculture
gricultural productivity in the country has stagnated for want of optimum technology applications. Most commentators tend to blame the academia and the research community for this. Admittedly, there are several research gaps but even more
pronounced is a lack of skill, innovation and adoption.
There are many ways to look at the challenge: land and water development; farm machinery and precision; seed and agro-chemicals; farm services and credit; processing and value addition; markets and agribusiness; rural-urban transition; and public policy and governance etc.
Machine operations require economies of scale, which are often beyond the means of most small farmers. Absorption of scale-neutral technology (seed, fertiliser, animal feed, chemicals) has made a significant impact on the production and productivity of crops and livestock. Yet, there is much more to be desired than is being done.
We have failed to keep pace with the emerging applications. Seed replacement for wheat has been very slow – around 20 percent a year; it should be at least 50 percent. The balanced use of fertilisers is totally missing. Nitrogen is the major fertiliser being used whereas our soils are deficient in several nutrients. The application of farm chemicals is often imprecise and timing of operations is not given due attention.
The nexus between land distribution and technological transformation in the canal colonies (1880s onwards) makes for an interesting study. The land development followed gravity-driven irrigation water flows from rivers. Back then, the relationship between average land holding and water allocation (supply controlled/ wara bandi / minutes per acre distribution of time slots) was efficient for a cropping intensity of 60 percent. Now, with land fragmentation over nearly six generations and a cropping intensity of 200 percent, the irrigation system struggles to be optimum. The water deficit is being met by excessive and expensive groundwater pumping.
A shift to high efficiency irrigation requires energy, pipes and on-farm water storage structures, which are beyond the reach of a majority of farmers. A complete system reform is required to convert supply of canal irrigation to a demand-driven water delivery. With increasing urbanisation, there will soon be greater competition for water allocation and pricing mechanisms to the disadvantage of agriculture.
Farm practices have to be made water-efficient to bear the cost of water volumes and delivery systems. The current investment in HEI needs to be revisited to make it compatible with the ground realities rather than allowing elite capture.
Animal draft power has nearly vanished and tractors are the standard farm horsepower. The tractors currently account for nearly half the required horsepower. The tractors are currently equipped with very few implements and are insufficient to meet the modern mechanisation requirements (ploughing, tillage, planting, spreading, spraying, harvesting, drying, grading, transportation).
The future lies with the next generation of mechanization: the use of precision agriculture equipment and application of data science and drones. There is a strong case for the provision of comprehensive rental services to replace the current tractorisation.
High efficiency irrigation requires energy, pipes and on-farm water storage structures, which are beyond the reach of a majority. A complete system reform is required to convert canal supply irrigation to a demand-driven delivery of water.
Sir William Roberts, the principal of erstwhile Punjab Agriculture College and Research Institute, Lyallpur (Faisalabad) wrote a paper in 1925 to highlight the need to create a seed industry in the country, long before the Green Revolution of 1960s. By then the use of hybrid corn seed was already in practice elsewhere. He abandoned academics and created Roberts Seed and Ginning business in Khanewal and Rahim Yar Khan. The seed industry was nationalised and converted into the Punjab Seed Corporation in mid 1970s.
A similar seed corporation was established in Sindh. These seed corporations have now become nearly irrelevant. There are nearly 1,000 private seed companies. Yet, we are failing the system in the provision of quality seed.
A major yield breakthrough in corn production has occurred due to the introduction of hybrid seed by multinational companies. There are isolated examples of other crops, including hybrid rice and vegetables. In most cases, farmers continue to use homegrown seed that does not even fit the definition of a seed. The corn experience shows that once farmers see the benefit in buying better seed, that brings in the application of the rest of the technology, i.e., proper seeding practices, fertilisers and chemicals application.
The Seed Act 1976 was promulgated to regulate the supply of quality seeds. Back then the GM crops did not exist. The Seed Act was amended in 2015 to accommodate GM crops and to provide Plant Breeder’s Rights Act 2016 to incentivise innovation (intellectual property).
There are three segments for creating an impact with quality seed in crop productivity, i.e. genetics/ science, regulation and multiplication and delivery to the farmer. The science part is fairly up to the mark, except that there is a large expanse of public sector breeding programmes with overlapping roles that could be integrated through better coordination. The regulation has its limitations, particularly the post-18th Amendment limited reach of a federal law. Harmonisation of federal and provincial roles needs attention in making the seed industry successful. The most disturbing part is the continuing counterfeit seed multiplication and delivery business.
In the advanced world, the government acts as a distant watchdog and there are associations that work (jealously guard) to achieve quality assurance. The seed stewardship is an essential element of quality assurance. The International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) offers a non-government quality assurance platform for the associations and seed companies across the globe. There is only one ISTA laboratory in Pakistan situated on the premises of the Federal Seed Registration and Certification Department. One more is being contemplated at Faisalabad.
Pakistan also lags in the adoption of the Cartagena Protocol that provides a globally standardised framework for the safe use of GM crops. There is a steady stream of indigenously developed GM traits. In order to utilise the potential of these technological gains, we must learn from the global best practices.
There is a network of provincial soil and water testing labs. The major fertiliser manufacturers also offer soil and water testing facilities. Still, the fertiliser application revolves around urea and DAP. There is a very limited application of potash and micronutrients critically deficient in our soils.
Excessive use of nitrogen fertilisers fall in the range of ‘diminishing returns’ while aggravating the environment. The time is ripe to introduce survey tools using image processing for precise applications. Stringent control is required on the application of agro-chemicals prescribed and dispensed by mushrooming dealerships.
In summary, we have the knowledge and recipes, but we lack appropriate packaging. The awareness and capacity building are a continuous process for assimilation. One option in the making would be a default corporatisation of agriculture supplies and services. That should be attractive to the banks and lenders who are otherwise weary of lending to the farmers lacking absorption capacity. There is also a good case for rural entrepreneurship and employment generation.
The writer is vice chancellor of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad