Focusing on Agriculture

by Dure Akram

That Pakistan languishes on the edge of a slippery cliff has been written to the point of repetition. With the balance of payment crisis continuing to tip our fragile economy over the edge, default risks run high. Amid severe cash crunches, deliberations over possible ways to maximise earnings as a way out of the abyss have once again gained momentum.

With its contributions of over 24 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product and accounting for at least half of employed labour, either directly or indirectly, agriculture, quite logically becomes one of the first avenues for consideration. Here is where the staggering fall of Pakistan’s influence on the global markets comes into focus. Pakistan takes great pride in its reputation as the “food basket of the world.

However, even a cursory glance at the statistics suggests otherwise. The fact that the world’s largest wheat producer had become a net wheat importer as far back as 2013 is all the evidence we need to reaffirm the error in our ways. Wheat–the very sustenance of a large majority of people–is the country’s second-largest food import. Before the full-blown conventional war between Ukraine and Russia disrupted global supply chains, Pakistan was availing import deals to the tune of 50 per cent from Ukraine and 40 per cent from Russia (2020).

Ever since the supply from Ukraine was disrupted, it has imported eight times as much wheat as before from Russia. Wheat is Pakistan’s largest food crop, providing more than 70 per cent of the country’s total caloric intake. More worryingly, it has been the myopic administrations of the past whose structural shortcomings and short-sighted agro-economic policy regulation paved the way for our downfall from a prominent exporter of wheat in 2011.

With its contributions of over 24 per cent to Gross Domestic Product and accounting for at least half of employed labour, agriculture, quite logically becomes one of the first avenues for consideration.

Looking at long queues of people from lower middle strata of society for a bag of wheat flour as they do not hesitate even when it comes to their lives, one cannot help but wonder what point could be considered the worst-possible state of affairs for the political elite to stand up and proclaim enough is enough.

Punjab’s Caretaker Minister for Agriculture SM Tanveer hit the bull’s eye when he sighed that unfortunately, no long-term policy had been formulated in the past for increasing agriculture production and ensuring value addition through innovation in the sector. Commendable initiatives are being taken as the caretaker government focuses on the Green Pakistan initiative, which is supposed to attract foreign investment in the agri sector, fetch around $50 billion in about five years, and employ approximately four million people, a series of smart ideas are needed in the right direction and at the right speed.

Because more than 85 per cent of the global supply of palm oil–our biggest agro-based import–comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, there is not much Pakistan can consider restructuring. In stark contrast to a measly $5.44 million of dried legumes exported, Pakistan imported $933 million in dried legumes in 2021; becoming the third-largest importer in the world.

Just as worrisome is the fourth-largest consumption of tea in the world despite Pakistan’s heavy dependence on imports to meet the demand. Between wheat, palm oil, tea and pulses accounting for nearly 70 per cent of the food import bill, Pakistan spent $8.936 billion on the import of different food commodities during the period from July-June 2022-23. There might have been a small dip of 0.88 per cent as compared to the last year but still, the situation is far too critical for an agro-based economy to remain oblivious.

This desperation cannot be allowed to continue any longer. When Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir proclaimed, “No power in the world can stop us from progressing, and an agriculture revolution will happen in Pakistan anyway,” he enthused confidence among the local farmers about the state willing to work for the bigger picture. Would this latest version of the green revolution actually deliver remains to be seen. Let’s focus on agriculture!

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