Five years ago, Pakistan achieved its highest acreage under wheat – 9.2 million hectares – leading to production of 26 million tons of grain, or per capita availability of 125 kg, above self-sufficiency levels. That year, Pakistan achieved national average yield of 2.8 tons per hectare for the first time, levels at which it has stayed close to since. Yet, retail price has since increased by nearly 75 percent, as per capita availability has fallen by 10 percent. What is going on?
To answer the question, one must first take a detour through the crop dynamics of world’s largest cereal crop – wheat. That Pakistan is the world’s 10th largest wheat producer but ranks 40th in terms of productivity (wheat per ha) would probably come as little surprise to most readers. After all, national crop productivity levels are little different for other major crops either, be it cotton or paddy. Yet, the precipitous fall in domestic wheat availability in recent years cannot exactly be blamed on yield loss alone.
Consider that between 2000 - 2016, Pakistan’s national wheat output increased by 26 percent, mainly attributable to a 20 percent rise in yield – which increased in a spasmodic but nearly steady fashion. During the same time, national area under the cereal has only increased by 7 percent, when it touched its highest ever levels.
Although yield has averaged close to its top levels since then – 2.8 tons per ha – the return of acreage to its mean levels of 8.75 million hectares has held back total output growth in the past 5 years. As estimated population continues to grow at 2 percent per annum, per capita cereal availability has thus recorded a steady decline to 112 kg, levels last seen 50 years ago in 1971.
Does that mean Pakistan should work on war footing to increase area under the crop? It could but consider this: even if Pakistan were to restore wheat area to its highest levels tomorrow, per capita wheat availability would only rise by one kilo gram the next year. Can Pakistan convert more acres to wheat? At 9+ million hectares, Pakistan already devotes more land to wheat than to its next 7 largest crops combined. In fact, 90 percent of arable land during rabi season is used to crop the cereal. Such is the power of population growth.
What can Pakistan do to return to self-sufficiency levels of 125 kg per capita? If crop yield increases by 3 percent annually, it would take until 2028 for the per capita availability to reach desired levels (assuming no change in population growth rate, and static demand despite increasing income levels). Sounds like quite an achievable target?
Except when you realize that 3 percent compounded for 7 years equals 23 percent – which is more than the total increase in yield recorded in past two decades. That would put national yield at par with the world average today, or levels already achieved by China, India, US, Russia, and Canada – world’s largest producers of the crop. Assuming of course, that maximal area under crop is maintained.
It is hard to fathom how Pakistani policymakers could control so many variables of the equation, while facing the looming climate crisis which can simultaneously lead to severe loss of productivity. At the same time, Pakistan is also fast losing its farming acres to other sectors of the economy, seen in loss of aggregate cropped area over last decade.
Over the next decade, Pakistan will face an unavoidable and near-certain wheat demand-supply gap (read shortage). Can the country subsidize its way out of the crisis by giving cash grants to increase productivity? Or liberalize the import regime permanently to fill the gap? Or will it make a reverse-substitution to cheaper grains such as millet and corn? How will a cereal shortfall affect demand for other major cereal crop – rice – and its exportable surplus? Can Pakistan find cheaper caloric substitutes to fill the empty stomach of its ever-increasing millions?
Pakistan’s policymakers face extremely difficult choices over national food security in the years ahead. Anyone wishing to rule for a decade (or more), should ask wisely.