Lessons from the quarantine – Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri


For decades, we were taught that agriculture is the backbone of our country’s economy. In the 1990s, however, we found that the contribution of the services sector in our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) equaled the share of agriculture and manufacturing sectors combined. In fact, the services sector constituted 61.40 percent of GDP in 2019-20. On the other hand, agriculture and manufacturing each had a 19 percent contribution in it that year.

One way to explain this phenomenon is that we took a quantum leap, bypassed industrialisation and turned ourselves into a services-based economy. In doing so, however, we could not train our human resources which, to be absorbed by the services sector, had to be highly skilled and/or highly educated. On the other hand, agriculture has remained the main provider of jobs even when its share in GDP has been consistently falling. This is because agriculture is the only sector which can employ an illiterate and unskilled workforce.

Come Covid-19 and we realise that the ability to provide large-scale employment is not the only thing that we should thank agriculture for. We now also know that 90 percent of the dietary requirements of Pakistan’s 210 million people are being met through domestic food production. The agriculture sector and the rural economy have indeed kept our food supply chain intact – which explains why we have not heard of any social unrest occasioned by the non-availability of food.

All this in spite of the fact that the agriculture sector has experienced a chronic policy and investment neglect – partly due to its reduced contribution in GDP, partly due to rapid urbanisation at the cost of cultivable lands and partly due to the fact that majority of the farmers (owners of small landholdings) have no voice in policymaking circles.

With the medical and economic maelstrom caused by Covid-19 and the dread and destruction being wrought by the locust attack, at least some of the policy focus is finally shifting back towards agriculture. Food security and the development of long-neglected rural education and healthcare are slowly moving back onto the radar of policymakers.

That, though, is not enough.

The consequences of a chronic policy neglect cannot be reversed overnight – not the least because most of the issues concerning agriculture fall in the provincial domain. If the federal government wants to take any initiative in order to improve the state of food security and the agriculture sector, it must do so without trespassing the domain of provincial governments.

Given this massive restriction, the very first thing that the federal government can do is facilitate the smooth functioning of the food supply chain and control artificial food shortages and food inflation created by interest groups and hoarders. To ensure that, policymakers need grassroots level information about food supply and food prices – a task that can be done by creating a central food security database. This database, to be updated on a daily basis through inputs provided by district administrations, can help policymakers make evidence-based decisions on the demand, supply, consumption and prices of food items in each district in the country. This information will in turn help in effective price management, immediate identification of hoarding where it takes place and timely curbing of the activities of food-mafias and cartels so that they cannot exploit consumers/farmers.

Secondly, the federal government can enable three pillars for agricultural development – universities, research centers and extension services – to develop and follow a collectively owned workplan. There is a disconnect between what is taught in our agricultural universities, the research which is conducted in public sector agriculture research institutes and the messages being disseminated to farmers through agriculture extension departments. This disconnect, unsurprisingly, means that these three pillars completely fail in meeting the requirements of the farming community.

To get over the hurdles and barriers in this regard, the federal government can set up a food security and research coordination board that includes the vice-chancellors of agriculture universities, heads of agriculture research centers, director generals of provincial agriculture extension departments, federal secretary of the Ministry of Food Security & Research, and provincial secretaries agriculture. This board can create a joint work plan, both at the federal and the provincial levels, to ensure that all departments, ministries, educational institutions and research centers develop and follow a common vision. By doing so, they can avoid duplication of efforts and use their respective resources in a more efficient and effective manner.

Third, the federal government should initiate the updating of the agro-ecological zoning of Pakistan by classifying cultivable areas according to its physiographic features, soil characteristics, rainfall potential, temperature and soil storage etc. The last such zoning was done in the 1980s so it has become outdated due to shifting weather patterns, introduction of new crop varieties and changes in land use. Updated zoning will help policymakers take steps and make strategies for a sustainable and diversified use of natural resources. It will also enable farmers to increase their yield and help the agriculture sector adapt to climate change.

Fourth, the federal government should reduce our dependence on food imports and upgrade our agricultural exports from primary products to value added products. One way of doing this can be to dedicate for food processing one of the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) being set up under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Board of Investment should devise an incentive package for the zone, in consultation with the Federal Board of Revenue and the State Bank of Pakistan. Major food and beverage manufacturing companies from around the world should be invited to establish their processing plants there.

Domestic production of value added food commodities – such as cheese, cereals, juices, nectars, packed fruits, dried fruits, fruit pulp, meat cuts, sausages etc – will not only help the government save foreign exchange that Pakistan spends on the import of these products, it will also improve our exports. This upgrading of the food value chain may also facilitate our farmers in getting good prices for their produce.

The fifth initiative that the federal government can take is to develop seed varieties that can resist drought and disease – in particular, for cotton and wheat. This can be done in collaboration with Chinese researchers and can help boost our stagnant yields. The seed varieties now available in Pakistan are not suitable for a changing climate (characterised by frequent droughts and rising temperatures) and increasing pest attacks.

That China has made some remarkable progress in developing wheat varieties that can resist drought as well as rust should encourage our policymakers to seek help from Chinese research in this regard. Similarly, Chinese biotechnologists are working on developing new cotton and vegetables varieties which can be adapted to Pakistani agricultural conditions. Starting seed breeding programmes in collaboration with China will give Pakistan’s agriculture the same boost that it got during the Green Revolution (which, one must acknowledge, has also been accompanied by a number of social, economic and environmental problems).

Finally, the federal government should encourage the use of multigrain flour. Research has indicated that blending corn flour with wheat flour does not have any negative effect on the taste of the resulting product if the volume of the former does not exceed 20 percent. The dough made from this flour can be turned into chapatis as easily as from the one made with wheat flour. This blending can reduce our overdependence on wheat and can also support corn farmers. Every 1,000,000 tons of imported wheat substituted by domestic corn, in fact, will save Rs18.1 billion (per million-ton wheat substituted) in foreign exchange.

Admittedly, the above-mentioned steps will not address the systemic issues facing agriculture – such as inequitable land holding, policy bias against small farmers, inefficient use of water and the lack of access to credit. This is mostly because almost all of these subjects fall in the provincial domain. Still, the policy initiatives by the federal government listed above will give a signal to the provinces to bring agriculture back on their policy radar. After all agriculture is the backbone for employment and food security, if not for the economy of Pakistan.

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.