A policy and incentives framework are required at the national level to encourage seed reforms, mechanisation and climate adaptation strategies
he history of Green Revolution can be summarised as introduction of input-responsive dwarf wheat genetics that broke the yield barriers (increasing wheat yields from 8 to 28 maunds/ acre). While there are many other examples of similar nature before and after the wheat revolution of the late 1960s, (i.e., hybrid corn in North America and cotton, maize, potato in Pakistan) the political economy of wheat makes it special. Few people appreciate the gains in other crops while most people lament the stagnant wheat yields.
Last year, the wheat procurement price was Rs 2,200 per 40 kg and the market price substantially higher. This year the Sindh government announced a Rs 4,000 per 40 kg price while other provincial governments were indecisive. The recent announcement of a Rs 3,900 per 40 kg price by the federal government is too late to have any consequences for the current year’s output.
Wheat remains the largest crop planted in Pakistan. It is sown over more than 21 million acres and consumes more than 40 percent of the irrigation water. Our current average yields are stagnant at around 3.0 MT/H (30 maunds/ acre) while the world average is more than double that. Some progressive farmers in Pakistan are harvesting 5.0 MT/H and record production of more than 9.0 MT/H is known. There is a world record of 20.0 MT/H (though in a longer duration). The next Green Revolution ought to be the one with new yield records of wheat to spare acreage for other vital Rabi crops (oilseeds, pulses, soybean, fodders and vegetables etc).
The import of essential commodities has reached $10.00 billion a year (edible oil, pulses, soybean and wheat). That import can only be arrested by breaking the wheat yield stagnation. A reduction in the area under wheat can then allow the expansion of cultivated area under oil seeds, pulses and soybean.
The stagnant yield of wheat is due to unexpected weather events and the failure to adopt available technologies. The cultivated area of wheat is also declining due to competition with oilseed crops. The scope for expansion of cultivated area is limited unless major irrigation reforms are undertaken.
The following interventions could usher the next wheat-led Green Revolution:
Wheat seed technology and seed replacement (OPVs and Hybrids): The breeders are continuing to breed newer and better varieties. Fortunately, wheat genetics is still in public domain, i.e., there are no intellectual property riders. However, the investment in wheat seed industry requires a business model and a demonstrated benefit of buying fresh seed for every crop year:
We have undertaken door-to-door wheat campaigns during 2021 and 2022 sowing seasons across the province. The surveys show that seed replacement with new varieties on yearly basis is negligible. The farmers tend to continue with the home-saved seed. A new wheat seed technology setup and supply chain system is needed.
Hybrid seed is one option that has transformed maize. The benefit of hybrid seed is strikingly obvious and scale neutral. After maize, rice cultivation is being transformed by the introduction of hybrid seed. Hence, wheat is a likely candidate for the introduction of hybrid seed.
A second Green Revolution is possible within three years by assuring the transfer of available technology. This will not only make the country self-sufficient in wheat but also create space for competing crops as import substitutions.
The OPVs (open pollinated varieties or pure lines) are the traditional varieties which the farmers continue to use for years as a home saved seed. The realisation of benefits of the seed replacement is one thing that farmer needs to appreciate. The varieties bred by the breeders sit on the shelf due to a weak and ineffective seed multiplication/ certification system. The government claims availability of 50 percent of total seed requirement of annual wheat seed supply in the system are not supported by our survey results.
In addition to the genetic purity and viability of the seed, there is now a whole industry of seed grading and treatments (fungicides and biologicals) which pays attractive dividends (10-15 percent). Considering the examples of maize and rice, it is high time to incentivise wheat seed industry development.
New genetics: The dwarf wheat genetics of 1960s was based on a Japanese origin Norin-10 gene family that responded to high inputs and optimum conditions but lacked resilience to climate stress. The current climate challenge (high temperature in particular) has created an environment for which the new dwarfing genes have been invented. These are yet to be used in the breeding programmes. We have collaborated with the Washington State University, Pullman-USA and acquired more than 40 new genetic lines of wheat containing a new set of genes. Our breeding programme offers new OPVs/pure lines and parents for a new hybrid seed system.
Planters and harvesters: More than 21 million acres of wheat is sown largely by broadcasting. As a result, the plant population remains subnormal. Optimised planting offers 10-20 percent yield gains. Nearly all wheat harvesting is currently being done using obsolete machines imported as scrap. This causes more than 15 percent losses in the field.
GM wheat: Time is approaching fast to create a working system for the introduction of GM crops, including wheat. Genome edited crops are considered a low hanging fruit.
International collaboration: Wheat research is still in the public domain. But, with increasing dominance of IP regimes, we must enter into proper material transfer agreements (MTAs) for a continued wheat germplasm augmentation. In addition to yield and disease resistance, it is important to breed wheat for varied market requirements and for nutritional value (protein/gluten, Zn/Fe).
Outreach and capacity building of farmers: The farmers respond to innovations through extension initiatives. Attention should be paid to: time of operations/ sowing; balanced fertiliser; irrigation; weedicide and marketing/ support price. The announcement of procurement price before the sowing season is a very effective tool.
A policy and incentives framework are required at the national level to encourage seed reforms, mechanisation/ precision and climate adaptation strategies. A second Green Revolution is possible within three years by assuring the transfer of available technology. This will not only make the country self-sufficient in wheat but also create space for competing crops as import substitutions. The Green Revolution II should be the one for wheat, oilseeds, pulses and soybean together.
The writer is the vice chancellor of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad