The Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research Fakhar Imam was recently quoted saying that Pakistan and China are eager for effective coordination in agriculture sector. This is not a new agenda; agriculture has been one of the pillars of CPEC since the very start, which only strengthens the case – as argued earlier in this space – that federal and provincial governments must collaborate to reform Pakistan’s agriculture, give its contribution to lives, livelihoods, GDP and sustainable development goals. (Relevant read: SEZs for food processing? Nov 25, 2020)
One of the critical areas of reforms is education, one aspect of which is subject knowledge of agriculture or livestock education, which of course needs significant overhaul. For example, according to industry estimates nearly 98 percent of livestock ‘experts’ are trained in animal treatment rather than preventive care, nutrition, best farm practices and so forth. ‘
This is no ordinary problem. Because livestock are not like plant or machinery of an industrial unit, where part replacement can quickly get the machine up and running for the same level of productivity before the machinery broke down. Livestock, in order to deliver best productivity (yields), must be prevented from breaking down at all costs, simply because productivity of those animals doesn’t swiftly recover as easily.
The other aspect of agriculture education is the business management aspect. By now, there is clear understanding that agriculture policy has been in a disarray for decades, one reason of which there is lack of sectoral expertise in public or private sector, which is why it is international donors who provide financial as well as technical support in provincial farm-related policymaking. Even an international trained vet cannot be expected to make prudent livestock policy simply because of lack of understanding of the business and economics.
These facts make the case for undergrad and post-graduate programmes in agriculture policy and business. There are people in this country who understand agriculture – not perhaps as much as their peers in competing economies but surely much better than business and economics graduates from Pakistan’s mostly urban setting. And there are people who are adequate business and economics graduates but they don’t have the foggiest of idea of how farm economies work.
Perhaps recognizing these problems, some Pakistani universities have been offering undergraduate and graduate programmes in agri-business. This includes Arid University, University of Agriculture Faisalabad, IBA Sukkur, whereas some – such as LUMS – have been offering executive certifications in agri and dairy business management, which are basically short courses.
But all this possibly good work does not move the needle, in terms of the scale of change required. And one of the reasons why it doesn’t move the needle is because most agri-business graduates are from rural or peri-urban areas; they don’t generally come from moneyed circles who have sufficient resources (financial and non-financial) and capability to make investments and/or influence policies. Au contraire, urban investors generally don’t understand agriculture sector too well and therefore don’t want to engage with it not even with a ten-foot pole.
What is therefore needed is for the Higher Education Commission to encourage collaboration between top urban universities and leading agri-universities at home or abroad to encourage budding professionals from the urban society to engage with the agriculture sector, leading to positive spillovers across the value chain.
These kinds of exchange programme degrees may not be a top sell among the university degree-seeking residents of Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad. But given the growing awareness and consumption trend toward healthy eating, fitness, organic foods etc. in Pakistan’s top cities, and the possibility of food exports achieved through marketing, branding, processing packaging etc. there might be at least just enough demand for the programme to sustain itself once it takes off after government or private sector support.
Failure to invest time and money to train agribusiness and policy professionals will make sure that 15 years later, Pakistan’s agriculture policy will still be in a disarray; food exports will only remain a ‘potential’; farmers won’t be getting the margins they deserve; farmers will remain vulnerable due to verbal contracts in farm economy; and poor access to credit poor leaving, food storage, agro-processing, marketing scoping/mapping, value addition, agri & food quality management and other affairs will continue to be in the 19th century.