With erratic climate playing havoc with wheat crop in the country, is a food crisis just round the corner?
The unexpected rains and hailstorms since February 2019 have damaged the Rabi crops, mainly wheat, particularly in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The government and farmers are not on one page on assessing the damage.
Advisor to Chief Minister Punjab, Muhammad Akram Chaudhry, tells TNS that 0.7 million metric tonne wheat crop has been destroyed which is around 40 percent of the total crop of the current season. Punjab Agriculture Minister, Malik Nauman Ahmad Langrial, says that 35,000 acres of wheat and corn crops have been destroyed during the recent spell of rains and hailstorm across the province.
According to Pakistan Agriculture Research Forum (PARC) wheat, being the staple diet, is the most important crop and 80 percent farmers grow it on an area of around nine million hectares (close to 40 percent of the country’s total cultivated land) during the winter or Rabi season.
It contributes 14.4 percent to the value-added produce in agriculture and 3.0 percent to GDP. In January 2019, the government was expecting a good wheat crop and the set target of wheat production was 25.51 million tonnes.
Wheat is grown in different cropping systems, such as; cotton-wheat, rice-wheat, sugarcane-wheat, maize-wheat, fallow-wheat. The zoning is mainly based on cropping pattern, disease prevalence and climatological factors. PARC data shows that wheat productivity has increased over the last few years in all the major cropping systems representing diverse and varying agro-ecological conditions.
Coming back to the assessment and data presented by the Punjab government on wheat damage, Director Farmers’ Associates Pakistan and Member Agri Commission Punjab, Farooq Bajwa, strongly dismisses the official assessment.
"Wheat crop was cultivated on 16.5 million acres across the Punjab province where 4 million acres depend on seasonal monsoon rains and the rest on canal system that is sourced from snow and glacier. Out of such production we normally get 300 million Boris (a bag carrying 100kg weight) per year if the weather remains normal," he says.
This year rains started after mid February which was harmful for wheat crop at the age of maturity. "That spell damaged the crop severely and we lost almost 30 million Buris. The second spell started after April 14 at the time of harvesting that cost us 20 million more Buris. Now the total number of lost Buris is 50 million (5 million tonne) that means around two million acres of crop is destroyed," he adds.
"The government is not giving real assessment and the concerned authorities don’t appear serious in tackling this catastrophic situation."
Harvesting of the crop began in Sindh and South Punjab in late March and is expected to continue till mid June in North Punjab. However, torrential rains since April 14 have dashed the hopes of farmers, especially those belonging to South Punjab region which falls in the cotton-wheat cropping system. Farmers here normally manage to harvest two crops in a year.
Central Secretary General Pakistan Kissan Ittehad, Mian Umair, tells TNS that farmers are facing two kinds of damages because of unexpected rain and hailstorm; first is the area where hailstorm destroyed wheat crop completely, the second one is the region where rains have turned the wheat black. "Black wheat neither carries proper weight nor attracts good price from the open market. Government centres are always unwilling to purchase such quality of wheat."
He adds that farmers, along with the destroyed crop, will have to bear the harvesting cost of the destroyed crop so that the land may be prepared for the cotton crop. This can delay the sowing of cotton, affecting the whole farming ecosystem as-well.
According to Mian Umair, the devastated farmer is looking towards the government to get some relief. Nevertheless, instead of announcing any relief package for the aggrieved farmers, the Punjab government has increased by Rs2.8 per electricity unit as fuel price adjustment on tube-wells being used for agriculture purposes. "In the current circumstances, it’s a ridiculous and shameful act by the government."
Advisor to Chief Minister Punjab, Muhammad Akram Chaudhry, asserts the government will share farmers loss. "Chief Minister Usman Buzdar has principally agreed to share most of the wheat growers’ loss. Therefore, a special package will be presented to the provincial cabinet soon for formal approval."
Besides, there is another concern being expressed by farmers and traders: the expected shortage of wheat in the days to come. Being a dietary staple, wheat flour currently contributes 72 percent of Pakistan’s daily caloric intake with per capita wheat consumption of around 124 kg per year, one of the highest in the world. This can pose a serious challenge to the government.
However, Chaudhry doesn’t take it as a point of concern for the government. Practically, he believes, there will be no crises for the common people as the government has enough in stock to fulfill the demand of flour mills and general market.
"Wheat worth Rs437 billion is already in the government’s warehouses which is considered as a liability as the government has to spend Rs36 billion extra per year to maintain warehouses and keep the wheat safe. The government can lessen its liability by facilitating flour mills and overcoming expected wheat shortages in the open market."
Even if the government doesn’t purchase the amount of wheat like it used to be, there would be enough in stocks to avert any troublesome situation in the future, he says.
Despite the fact that the government has not started purchasing wheat from farmers in the areas where they have already harvested their crops, farmers are getting Rs1200 per 40kg in the open market - Rs100 more than the last year.
This situation alarms people like Farooq Bajwa. He believes the government must be ready to face the catastrophe in terms of shortage of wheat in the whole country around November or December. "It would be so because wheat in Afghanistan and Iran is already short because their crop is also destroyed by the unexpected climatic disaster. Afghan buyers are already here and purchasing wheat at a very large scale and exporting it to their homeland. This would, certainly, create shortage in our market and I am afraid the government doesn’t have enough supply to handle any unexpected crises."
Considering the local and international circumstances, Mian Umair and Farooq Bajwa suggest the government must keep its stocks full to avoid any problematic situation in the country. "The opportunity to sell its stocks in the international market would remain intact as Afghanistan and Iran are going to be serious buyers of wheat this year."