Muhammad Akbar reviews the problems and potential of a populous food producing nation.

Muhammad Akbar.

Agriculture plays a major role in Pakistan’s economy; it accounts for 21% of GDP and 45% of the workforce is employed in agriculture. But agriculture in Pakistan faces numerous difficulties and despite its importance to the country, food security is not guaranteed for significant portions of the country.

Pakistan’s population in 2011 was 177 million – the sixth largest in the world – and is predicted to reach 191.7 million by 2015. Yet the agriculture sector has been suffering from decline for the past three decades. Productivity remains low; yields per unit area are low, and critical investments in developing new plant varieties, farming technology and water infrastructure are not being made.

Without major new investments in agriculture, it is not clear how Pakistan would tackle emerging challenges such as declining water availability, regional climate change, water logging and increasing salinity.

Pakistan’s problems

Food price inflation in Pakistan has averaged 18% for the last four years while the purchasing power of the poor people has deteriorated significantly.

At the same time, since 2007 the average retail sale prices of Urea, NP and and DAP fertilizers have increased by 293%, 322%, and 289%, respectively. Hence, use of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers has decreased by up to 19%, mainly due to international and local market forces. The main factors in the local market for price increase were a 20% gas curtailment to fertilizer industry, and levying of 17% GST (general sale tax) on fertilizer. The use of fertilizer by small and poor farmers is therefore patchy and further decreases food crop yields.

Pakistan’s problems are also exacerbated by natural disasters. In 2010-2011, 21% of the rice area was reduced due to flood damage and rice production was cut by almost a third. Floods in the Sindh province in 2011 then reduced the wheat crop area by 20%.

R&D, past and present

A strong national agricultural research system is necessary to increase and sustain food production. In Pakistan, national agricultural research system consists of the Federal Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), as well as provincial research institutes and agricultural universities.

PARC aims to conduct, support coordinate and promote agricultural research throughout Pakistan. PARC introduced National Coordinated Research Programmes (NCRP) in 1976 on various crops, such as wheat and sugar, to strengthen research capabilities. NCRPs were proven to be very effective at increasing productivity by releasing a significant number of high yielding crops and production technologies. Until the 1980s, PARC implemented 33 NCRPs on major commodities and disciplines in close collaboration with provincial institutions.

But in 2009, due to lack of funding, all NCRPs were terminated.

The human resource

PARC trained more than 450 scientists to MSc and PhD level until 2006. But the total number of research staff dropped by more than 20% in 2003 compared to 1990s. Many trained senior scientists are retired, and current researchers face limited promotion opportunities, low salary levels and few other incentives. This has led to brain drain of researchers from the government institutions to universities, non-research agencies, or to opportunities outside Pakistan.

As a result, both federal and provincial institutions are suffering from lack of qualified research personnel and programme leadership has weakened. Strengthening the agricultural research system is one of the most important development strategies in Pakistan, but due to lack of funding, staff and overall vision, the system has weakened over the past 35 years.  

Increasing yield

Due to urbanization, declining water resources, climate change, and soil degradation by erosion and salinisation, it is difficult to expand the area available for crop production. Hence, the only solution is crop intensification to increase yield per unit area.

But there exists a wide gap between potential yield level and yield level in the farmer’s field. For example, the average yield of basmati rice is 3.2 t/ha while the potential yield is 6.2 t/ha. Similarly the average yield of rice variety IRR6 is 6.0 t/ha and potential yield is 10 t/ha.

But improvement is possible with the correct approach and technology. We conducted rice agronomic trials such as fertilizer placement methods, fertilizer doses, planting date, plant population per unit area, pest and disease control, water management, weed control, etc. with the participation of farmers for three years in the Punjab and Sindh provinces. A technology package was developed and demonstrated on 10,000 acres in 12 villages in Punjab province.

We were able to increase yield/ha of basmati rice by 59% and IRR6 rice by 106%. This indicates that yield/ha can be increased by launching productivity enhancement programmes, such as the NCRPs. Salient feature of the programs were: production technology, supply of inputs, mass media campaign, credit, participation of farmers, extension and research departments, and effective local administration.

My research experience in Pakistan and at the International Rice Research Institute shows that saline soils can be brought under rice cultivation by developing salt-tolerant rice varieties because the necessary variability exists in the rice germplasm.

Tackling the problem

The food security situation in Pakistanis is facing a big challenge. Agricultural growth rates of 5-6% are required to reduce poverty in the country. But the agricultural sector’s performance for the last three decade has been declining; productivity and yields per hectare are low; and the rising price of fertilizers and other inputs may further reduce production.

Furthermore, coordination between local and international agencies is weak, and funding for research is inadequate. Institutions responsible for generating technologies and dissemination have weakened over the last 35 years.

The situation is alarming. The agricultural sector needs the immediate attention of the Pakistan Government. Heavy investments are needed to improve the sector productivity, and at present, I believe the best way is by launching major productivity programmes.

About Muhammad Akbar

Dr Muhammad Akbar obtained PhD in Plant Breeding and Genetics from Japan in 1973. He has 30 years experience in rice research and development. He has published 60 papers on rice research, production, yield constraints, packages of technology for rice production, post-harvest rice processing, and on linkages between researchers and farmers to increase rice production. He worked at IRRI, Philippines, as senior scientist for 9 years. He has served as a Principal scientist, Director General, and Chairman of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, Islamabad. He was member of the Pakistan Cabinet Committee, 1993; and also on the Academic Council of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad.

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