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July 2024

Rice exports at risk

Pakistan’s agri-food sector has a very narrow export base, primarily consisting of a limited range of commodities. Rice stands out as the largest export, bringing in over $3.5 billion in foreign exchange in FY24.

Nevertheless, rice exporters are facing a growing risk of shipment rejections, particularly by the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, due to food safety issues.

The EU issued an increased number of alerts in 2023 regarding the detection of pesticide residues in rice shipments, especially basmati, originating from Pakistan and India. The shipments did not comply with the maximum residue limits (MRLs) — the permissible thresholds for pesticides — set by the EU. In previous years (2022, 2021), India’s shipments had a relatively higher non-compliance rate compared to Pakistan’s. However, so far, in 2024, rice shipments from Pakistan have triggered more alerts than those from India.

Likewise, the cases of mycotoxins (aflatoxin) — toxic substances that form when rice is infected by fungus or mould — have consistently been higher in Pakistan’s shipments compared to Indian ones over the past three years.

Rising pesticide residues and mycotoxins have become a critical concern for exporters, and they must be addressed without delay to avert a potential EU ban. To that end, Pakistan’s rice sector must strengthen its food safety regime.

EU’s rejections rise due to food safety concerns because of higher pesticide residue

The rice value chain has four key players: farmers, stockists, millers, and exporters. Rice farmers often apply (via spray or flooding) agrochemicals like chlorpyrifos, acetamiprid, imidacloprid, tricycazole, carbendazim, triazophos, etc., to control the primary threats, such as stem borer, brown bug, paddy leaf roller, whiteflies, and fungi. These agrochemicals are not approved for rice crops but are intended for cotton, sugarcane, or other crops.

Additionally, farmers tend to use a higher concentration of pesticides than recommended by manufacturers or apply pesticides too close to harvest time. As a result, the pre-harvest interval (PHI) — the time period required between the last pesticide application and crop harvest to ensure residue dissipation — often falls short. Such faulty practices lead to elevated pesticide residue levels in the harvested crop.

The majority of rice farmers in Pakistan are illiterate or poorly educated. Even progressive farmers lack information about rice-specific agrochemicals, their correct dosages, and PHI. This is a glaring failure of the agricultural extension, pesticide companies, and the Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan (REAP).

Another issue at the farmers’ end is the premature harvesting of rice crops at 20-30 per cent moisture content. Increased cropping intensity shortens the time window between the harvest of one crop and the sowing of the next, compelling farmers to use combine harvesters for early harvests. Additionally, the growing threat of erratic rains due to climate change is another reason for farmers’ early harvesting.

Elevated moisture levels in the harvested crop, coupled with suboptimal storage and fungal infection, foster conditions that develop aflatoxin. Therefore, it is imperative that paddy be dried to a safe moisture level of 14pc to 15pc within 24 hours of harvesting. Sun drying — employed by over 90pc of millers — hardly meets this target, thereby underscoring the need for the adoption of mechanical dryers, fired by cost-effective rice husk — a by product of rice milling.

Many farmers in Pakistan lack information about rice-specific agrochemicals and end up using ones not approved for rice crops

To cut costs, stockists and small millers do not hire professional fumigation services to keep their stocks and storage facilities free of insects. They often use non-approved pesticides like chlorpyrifos to eliminate insects, especially the khapra beetle. Chlorpyrifos residue is one of the top causes of shipment rejections.

The procurement system of rice mills is flawed, as they mostly buy paddy in small lots from grain markets without knowing its origin or the agricultural practices employed. Given the small farm sizes in Pakistan, contract farming or buy-back arrangements — engaging directly with the farmers — can mitigate the growing challenge of non-compliance with MRLs.

Pakistan has witnessed several successful models of contract farming led by private sector players — processors and exporters. Yet, the country lacks a specific law for contract farming, as the prevalent Contract Act of 1872 does not include specific provisions for it. Thus, to foster contract farming, it is essential to incorporate special clauses into the Contract Act of 1872, particularly those that facilitate the speedy disposal of cases in civil courts.

In March 2024, Indian Punjab announced a ban on ten agrochemicals, effective July 15 2024, to reduce pesticide residues in basmati rice. The state government plans to promote alternative agrochemicals with relatively lower residue problems.

In Pakistan, if the government feels incapacitated to impose a similar ban due to the influential lobby of pesticide companies, at the very least, labels on pesticides should have a bold warning for farmers that the chemical is not intended for the rice crop. Additionally, the PHI (in days) of all pesticides must be precisely specified on the label.

Recently, REAP, in partnership with the Pakistan Basmati Heritage Foundation, has organised a few seminars in different cities to raise farmers’ understanding of the issue. This initiative needs to be scaled up through cost-effective web-based awareness programmes, using social media platforms for public and private extension workers, the field force of pesticide companies and farmers. A comprehensive campaign across print and electronic media must complement this effort.

Rice exporters are required to contribute a 0.25pc export development surcharge on the export value of rice shipments. Necessary funds can be allocated from the Export Development Fund to REAP for awareness campaigns and training programmes. In addition, a dedicated financing facility and subsidised loan scheme are required to encourage the adoption of mechanical dryers in rice mills to solve the aflatoxin issue.

In conclusion, the health and lives of Pakistanis are just as vital as those of individuals in the EU, US, and UK. When a rice lot fails to comply with the food safety standards of these countries, it is often redirected to local markets. Therefore, improving our food safety regime is imperative not only for boosting exports but also for protecting the lives of citizens of Pakistan.

Khalid Wattoo is a farmer and a development professional and Dr Waqar Ahmad is a former Associate Professor at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 1st, 2024 QR Code

Published Date: July 1, 2024

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