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Meeting agriculturists` requirements

THE fate of Pakistan`s agriculture this year hinges chiefly on how successful it becomes in the ongoing fight against locusts. The breeding and spread of locusts across agricultural fields have emerged as a serious challenge.

Sindh has `reservations` about the extent of federal cooperation it has so far received. But generally, the fight against locusts is being fought in high spirit with full support from global organisations and friendly countries like China and Turkey, according to a recent Dawa report.

Amidst the ongoing war against Covid-19, food security is utmost important. And, food security cannot be ensured without keeping the agriculture sector in order and meeting all requirements of agriculturists.

One aspect of this requirement is of the availability of inputs. The local output and the marketing of some inputs like fertilisers remain almost unaffected amidst Covid-19. But imports of certified seeds, pesticides/insecticides and even agricultural machinery have reportedly been hit owing to the disruption in international trade.

Wheat production for this year has already fallen short of target to a five-year average of 25.38 million tonnes against the target of 27.03m tonnes, according to the latest Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report.

The Federal Committee on Agriculture (FCA) was scheduled to meet at the end of March. But it has not met so far owing to a delay in data collection on part of the provinces amidst Covid-19 lockdowns. The nation will know about the exact production of wheat as well as carryover stocks only after the FCA meeting. The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) says milled rice production this year has remained at the last year`s level of 7.2m tonnes. This is enough to feed the local population of 220m people and set aside a part of pro-duction for exports.

The expected shortfall in the wheat output may trigger another wheat flour crisis and adequate rice production can help earn precious foreign exchange. Media reports suggest Pakistan already exported more rice to the Gulf countries in April, taking advantage of stricter lockdowns in India that affected Indian rice exports to that region. Pakistan relies almost entirely on local wheat and paddy seeds. So in the future, any disruption in the supplies of imported seeds isn`t going to affect these two staple food crops. (A small quantity of Chinese paddy seeds and Australian wheat seeds are grown locally under bilateral technical cooperation).

The case of maize is different. The country does rely on imported seeds in addition to locally available seeds. Corn seeds of high-yield varieties are imported in sizable quantities from the United States, Mexico, Ukraine and Argentina. Growers say such imports have come to a halt fearing that this may affect the winter maize crop. For the past few years, Pakistan`s maize output has been on the rise owing to the availability of locally developed better seed varieties as well as imported seeds.

In the last cropping year, the maize output was in excess of 6.3m tonnes, up from 5.9m tonnes a year ago. Though maize is mostly used for manufacturing animal and poultry feed, corn flour becomes the most natural alternative of wheat flour particularly in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in case of wheat shortages.

Smaller imports of certified seeds of fodder crops, maize and vegetables are also affecting these crops. But this is not a major problem since the local production of seeds of major food items is adequate. Within the country, about 40-50 leading companies, out of an estimated 400-500, produce certified seeds of food crops. In recent years, their production has been on the rise. Between July 2019 and January 2020, Pakistan spent about $700m on imports of certified seeds of crops (including oil seeds), down from $800m in the same period of 2018-19, SBP statistics reveal.

Equipping farmers with most modern agricultural machinery and technology is a must because preand post-harvest losses are very high, particularly in case of vegetables, fruits, pulses and other perishable crops. Crop losses owing to a lack of storage facilities are common in case of major food crops i.e. wheat, rice and maize.

Facilitating machinery and technology imports should, therefore, be part of the second round of the incentive package for farmers under consideration. Pakistan spends very little on imports of agricultural machinery and equipment. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, this spending fell below $75m from a little more than $100m a year ago. A slashing of interest rates on agricultural loans in general and on development agricultural loans in particular is on the cards. That may help increase the purchase of imported and locally assembled agricultural machinery and equipment.

The government is also incentivising the use of tractor through some subsidy on sales tax. But so far no move has been made to facilitate the construction of steel silos on an emergency basis to contain crop losses and increase the shelf life of food grains. Similarly, no specific incentives are being offered for promoting the tunnel farming of vegetables and fruits and not much has been done to improve the conditions of fisheries.

Subsidised loans for the manufacturing of modern fishing boats and fish-hauling equipment can promote fish exports.

Amidst a greater concern for ensuring food security, rice, seafood and meat products remain the only three major categories of food exports that the government can now rely on.

Disruptions in shipping services have resulted in the lower supplies of imported fertilisers and insecticides/pesticides in February-April, growers say. Crops have not been affected much owing to the scant supplies of fertilisers though as local supplies have remained adequate.

But the case of insecticides/pesticides is different. Imported raw materials are used even in locally manufactured insecticides/pesticides and their lower imports plus a decline in the volumes of imported finished products are bound to affect crop management. In July-March, Pakistan`s imports of foreign fertilisers fell to 92,000 tonnes from 134,000 tonnes a year ago. And the imports of insecticides/pesticides contracted to just $12m from $16m, data released by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics shows.- MA