BREAKING PAKISTAN’S AGRICULTURE MYTHS
Instead of viewing the agriculture sector as simply a provider of food for the poor, Pakistan must see it as an engine that can drive economic growth.
At the Agri-Connections Conference in Karachi in March 2023, former State Bank Governor Salim Raza made a stark statement: Pakistan’s economy cannot reach the desired level of seven to eight percent GDP growth unless its agriculture sector grows at more than four percent.
His wisdom is supported by the experience of Brazil in the 1970s, China in the 1980s and dozens of developing countries since then. Pakistan is at a level of development where plenty of economic growth and wealth creation can come from agriculture.
Yet somehow, in Pakistan, the agriculture sector remains wrapped in a bundle of myths and is plagued by vested interests and propaganda. This article hopes to cut through the propaganda and vested
interests in an attempt to unravel the myths that prevent the educated Pakistani from seeing how the agriculture sector can potentially salvage Pakistan’s economy.
Instead of viewing the agriculture sector as simply a provider of food for the poor, Pakistan must see it as an engine that can drive economic growth for the next few decades. But this can only be achieved if we are able to shatter and overcome some of the most common and ill-advised perceptions about the sector
MYTH 1: AGRICULTURE PLAYS A MINOR ROLE IN
Year after year, more than 75 percent of Pakistan’s exports are found to be based on agriculture. Pakistan’s export mix has lamentably remained the same for more than a couple of decades. Textiles have dominated, followed by rice, fruits, leather goods, etc. For every extra dollar of cotton produced at the farm gate, there is at least three dollars and fifty cents of textile products exported by Pakistan. This multiplier is even higher for shirts, t-shirts, socks, etc., compared to bed linen and towels.
For a sector that typically accounts for 20 to 25 percent of Pakistan’s GDP, agriculture packs a lot more economic punch than Pakistan’s policymakers give it credit for. Agriculture is also widely linked to other sectors of the Pakistani economy.
When agriculture moves, transport moves, milling moves, packaging moves, motorcycle sales move, etc. The direct and indirect contribution of agriculture within the domestic economy was, in fact, estimated at 45 percent by a Bank of Punjab study.
But the more important question today is: which sector can get Pakistan out of its current economic troubles quickly?
Pakistan needs a massive increase in exports, but without a corresponding increase in imports. So, the government has largely been correct in its identification of mining, information technology (IT), and agriculture as priority sectors for economic growth. Among these, agriculture is the sector that can give Pakistan quicker growth, at a much lower cost, and with a much greater impact on poverty.
But the neglect of agriculture has meant that growth in agriculture has hovered at a little over two percent per annum over the past couple of decades. For every dollar of wheat produced in Pakistan, the value of wheat flour (atta) we make barely reaches a dollar and fifty cents. But that dollar of wheat can produce six dollars’ worth of cookies.
Meanwhile, the neglect of agriculture has turned us into an importer of wheat, cotton and many other crops that have been grown in our geographical region for thousands of years! The fact is, agriculture does not play a minor role in Pakistan’s economy and it can play a critical part in Pakistan’s economic turnaround.
MYTH 2: THE WORLD IS TRYING TO KILL US THROUGH ‘TERMINATOR SEEDS’
Better seeds are perhaps the most powerful driver of an improvement in agriculture. But, paranoia is our national pastime, and paranoia turns into terror in the Pakistani public’s mind when it comes to seeds. The most frequently asked question about seeds is: are the world’s ‘evil powers’ trying to sell us ‘terminator seeds’ that will render our soils unproductive?
And this terror even impacts policymaking! There is a story told in agriculture policy circles about how a major reform of the seed sector was finally scuttled by officials from our agencies on account of national security. As Mark Twain said, when you’re a hammer, pretty soon everything begins to look like a nail.
The neglect of agriculture has turned us into an importer of wheat, cotton and many other crops that have been grown in our geographical region for thousands of years! The fact is, agriculture does not play a minor role in Pakistan’s economy and it can play a critical part in Pakistan’s economic turnaround.
Paranoia does not require rationality. Somehow, in the last quarter century, we have imported tens of millions of mobile phones and hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of oil, but the world’s ‘evil powers’ have not elected to puncture our communications systems or jam up our car engines. Meanwhile, seeds have remained heavily regulated particularly for major crops such as wheat, cotton and Basmati rice.
The real question is: what have we achieved by being so well protected in our regulatory bunker? Well, hardly any nationally significant seed variety has been introduced that dramatically increased yields for our major crops. With our multi-billion-dollar rice exports, Super Basmati is the locally developed variety that still dominates the rice landscape. It was released by a public sector seed research outfit a quarter of a century ago.
As always, there is an exception to all our rules: the incredible success of the imported hybrid seed. The government introduced a framework for hybrid seeds in 2001 that led to the import of hybrid maize, rice and vegetable seeds. Maize yields have tripled since then, as farmers have adopted hybrid maize seeds, and maize output has risen six-fold! And, there have been no signs of any ‘terminators’.
The reality is that seed development in the country requires a modern seed industry right here in Pakistan. Seed is typically a local business in which international firms can bring expertise and capital, but the development has to be done indigenously.
Here, the government’s command-and-control approach to seed development by the private sector has to shift to an enabling approach. Private seed companies are always shy to submit their best seed to the government’s byzantine seed certification process. They know the seed will be sold under the table during this process and all their investment in research will be lost. This mistrust must be eliminated. Often, the most potent voices against such a move are the country’s large farmers, who benefit from selling leftover seed from the previous season to other farmers with minimal quality checks.
Given all this, how do we move forward?
For starters, we can take the example of the motorcycle industry of Pakistan: a handful of globally established motorcycle brands that have joint ventures with leading Pakistani business groups. Since they operate in the formal sector, these companies are subject to all requisite minimum regulatory requirements, taxes, etc. But there remain plenty of unbranded motorcycles produced and sold informally across the country.
This can be a model for the seed sector as well. Any farmer who wants quality should be able to buy the best high-productivity seed possible from the best seed companies around. But other farmers should be able to economise and choose unbranded low-productivity seed from their fellow farmers, if they want to. Similar changes are required to improve the genetic potential of Pakistan’s dairy animals. But the paranoia must go!
A national social protection programme is needed that subsidises crop insurance for small farmers along the lines of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) for the poorest Pakistani households. The Government of Punjab introduced such insurance in 2018, but it is yet to scale.
MYTH 3: IF YOU KILL AGRICULTURE’S VILLAIN
— THE AARRHTI — FARMERS WILL HAVE A
If the diagnosis of the disease is incorrect, one simply cannot cure the disease. Is the aarrhti [middleman] a necessary evil, a lender of the last resort, or a disposable element of the agri supply chain?
It is best to hear it directly from the folks who sit in Pakistan’s mandis [wholesale markets] who identify themselves as aarrhtis and, despite all our prejudices, say “I am an aarrhti and I am the mandi’s bank.”
These folks speak of the immense risks they take in securing the harvest from many, mostly small, farmers to bring them to the mandi for onward transmission to consumers in towns and cities. What happens if the weather turns sour right around harvest? The aggregator says that, in most cases, he has to arrange labour to harvest and transport the crop from each small farmer’s location, which is a logistical project in itself.
The real power of the aarrhti lies in his claim on the farmer’s crop, since he has financed the farmer’s crop inputs, right from land preparation to harvest. And this chain connects one crop to the next. The aarrhti does not print his own money, of course. So, he has to wait for the harvested commodity to go from the mandi, and through the other middlemen, in order to reach millers and retailers. And that is when cash enters this chain each season and gradually snakes its way back towards the farmer.
Can the farmer wait? Well, agriculture is a highly time-sensitive business. And the farmer needs money right away to buy inputs for the next crop. How does the farmer get paid right away to secure the next crop’s inputs? Well, the small farmer’s story in Pakistan is not a comedy — it is a tragedy. And to be sure, the aarrhti does fit the bill as the villain in many cases.
The vulnerable farmer does not get paid immediately. Since the crop just harvested from the farmer’s field is pledged to the middleman, the inputs for the next crop must be purchased from input suppliers associated with the middleman. The middleman charges extra for inputs sold on ‘due’ or delayed payment. And the annualised interest rate of these charges can be north of 40 percent!
Of course, the aarrhti insists — and the farmer often agrees — that these charges are not interest, which is haraam [forbidden], but are instead a trader’s margin, which is halal [kosher]. This is not the end of the farmer’s trail of tears at the hands of the aarrhti.
When the farmer’s harvest reaches the mandi for auction, there is no testing equipment for determining the commodity’s quality. So, the aarrhti typically mixes one farmer’s harvest of good quality with another farmer’s harvest of bad quality, and somehow claims a good quality price for it all. The farmer never gets a fair price.
There are unfair reductions in price based on an arbitrary appraisal of harvest quality. The aarrhti even charges the farmer for the mandi labour’s entertainment (huqqa paani) and other assorted injustices. Finally, the aarrhti’s collude in the auction process in a way that the house, not the farmer, always wins.
So the aarrhti does fit the role of the villain in this tale. But decades of attempts to ‘get rid of the aarrhti’ have failed. These attempts teach us that the aarrhti is not so disposable. Our markets are too few compared to the volumes now passing through them. And the vast majority of our farms are so small that the aggregator is a need, and this aggregator has far greater power relative to all other players in the market.
However, the reason to remain optimistic is because even the shrewdest aarrhtis realise that they can make a lot more money if the supply chain can get investment in the shape of modern equipment and facilities with more financing. What is required is a transition to a modern supply chain rather than applying a chainsaw to the supply chain.
At least for the high priority of greater exports, Pakistan can mount a parallel system that may be smaller than the mainstream mandi system but still able to handle large volumes with proper testing, modern warehousing and price discovery — while also ensuring justice for the farmers.
Such a system has been developed over the past few years by the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan and the State Bank of Pakistan. This is the electronic warehouse receipts system that has been piloted in the private sector and is now ready for a scale-up.
MYTH 4: PAKISTAN IS RUNNING OUT OF WATER AND LAND FOR AGRICULTURE
A common misconception is that water availability is falling in Pakistan. According to data from the Indus River System Authority, the average quantity of fresh surface water available in the Indus River system has hovered around 145 million acre-feet annually for the past many decades. The misconception comes from focusing on the per capita availability of freshwater, which is often used to demonstrate water scarcity.
The water from our rivers has largely been constant, with natural annual variation. It is the population that has been rising for decades. As population rises, per capita availability of water is bound to fall. Dividing the fresh water available each year by the population in each year, and then stretching this out over the decades, gives the wrong impression that Pakistan is running out of water.
Some 93 percent of Pakistan’s freshwater is used for agriculture (the remaining seven percent is dominated by industrial use, with only one percent left for municipal uses). This means that the availability of fresh water is not directly linked to population size. And within agriculture, upwards of one-third of the water that enters Pakistan’s canal system is wasted due to a host of reasons.
Most of these reasons have to do with our dysfunctional irrigation system, which is run by the provincial governments. But a major portion of the waste is on-farm as well. For example, flood irrigation has become a museum exhibit in many countries of the world but it still reigns supreme in Pakistan’s farms.
Because of all this wastage, about half of Pakistan’s water used in agriculture is drawn from under the ground by using tube wells. The source is the underground body of water called the Indus aquifer that lies below the Indus River System. Now you know why a subsidised electricity tariff for tube wells is such an important demand of farmers. So, water is not running out — just yet! It is just being royally mismanaged.
The other misconception is that agricultural land is running out because housing colonies around urban areas are swallowing it. This latter part is not completely a myth because agricultural land is being used for housing colonies, especially with the expansion of Pakistan’s larger cities. But the notion that agricultural land in the country is running out is a myth.
Let’s put this in perspective. Nearly half of Pakistan’s land mass is cultivable agricultural land, while about one percent of Pakistan’s land mass is inhabited. It does break the heart to see some of Pakistan’s most fertile land around Multan converted from mango orchards into housing colonies. But this phenomenon seems much larger from urban eyes than it is in rural reality.
MYTH 5: THERE IS NO CLIMATE CHANGE AWARENESS IN RURAL AREAS
If there is one category of Pakistani citizens who became convinced about climate change first, it is the farmers of Pakistan. The reason for this is that farmers, whether literate or illiterate, whether growing crops or rearing livestock, are naturally tuned to every change in the weather — and this is not about deciding whether to wear a raincoat or to carry an umbrella when stepping out of the house. Farmers’ very livelihood depends on the weather.
Everyone knows how the historic rainfall in Sindh last year produced flooding that nearly destroyed the entire rice and cotton crops of Sindh and killed 42,000 livestock. But the shift in traditional weather patterns from week to week and month to month have been impacting farmers for a lot longer.
Higher-than-expected temperatures this September stumped cotton farmers, giving more time for the white fly to infest our cotton crop. A decade ago, a wheat farmer in District Umerkot offered me tea on his lawn in late November and observed that the prevailing mild temperature was a sign of climate change.
He had grown up with much lower temperatures in late November — low enough to make mid-day tea on the lawn quite uncomfortable. But the winter had been coming later and later, he said. So, the ideal window of October 15 to November 15 for sowing wheat had shifted.
A mid-scale farmer from District Layyah tells me about his high electricity bill because of the fan used by the exotic high-yielding cow he owns. The temperatures have been rising out of the ordinary, and his beloved cow needs the love.
Hence, farmers are more than aware of climate change and have been dealing with its impacts on crop and animal yields for a while. And these climate impacts are expected to become more frequent and have a higher variability. But climate change is not the kind of problem we can stop at a country level.
What we can do is protect farmers from the financial distress they face due to climate impacts on their livelihoods. Climate risk mitigation through robust crop insurance, based on satellite data and field surveys, is now available in Pakistan for the price of a bag of urea for every acre of crop insured. Livestock insurance solutions based on facial recognition technology are also being piloted in Pakistan.
The key is to make these solutions available at scale. For small farmers, governments subsidise crop insurance premiums the world over. According to the World Bank, out of 104 countries that have crop insurance schemes, 86 countries provide subsidies on crop insurance for farmers, including in developed countries.
Therefore, a national social protection programme is needed that subsidises crop insurance for small farmers along the lines of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) for the poorest Pakistani households. The Government of Punjab introduced such insurance in 2018, but it is yet to scale.
The Government of Sindh is preparing a similar scheme in the aftermath of the biblical floods of 2022. At the international level, it seems that all the talk about climate reparations can be channelled into insurance funding, to protect farmers with the participation of global reinsurers.
HARVESTING A CHANGE IN ATTITUDES
Pakistan’s policy elite and its business community are beginning to wake up to the importance of agriculture as the sector that can put the economy on a path to greater exports. And no country has been able to eliminate poverty without modernising its agriculture, because agriculture creates wealth where poverty lives.
The educated Pakistani must see that agriculture should not be considered a real estate project for investors from home and abroad. Those investors are going to need the same things for success that Pakistan’s farmers have been asking for over the past couple of decades: better seed, robust insurance, water delivered on time, a fair deal at the market, etc.
Pakistan’s outlook towards agriculture must shift from considering it a sector that only provides food for the poor to a sector that can be an engine of growth for the next couple of decades. Paranoia is the real terminator seed.
Header Image: The neglect of the agriculture sector has meant that growth in agriculture has hovered at a little over two percent per annum over the past couple of decades|White Star
The writer is the co-founder and strategy advisor of the Pakistan Agricultural Coalition
Published Date: November 19, 2023