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It is widely understood that fertilizer offtake in Pakistan’s farming sector is highly skewed towards excessive urea application. Afterall, Pakistan’s majority small-hold and subsistence growers can ill-afford other high value fertilizers such as DAP and nitro phosphates. The common mantra among country’s progressive farmers is that optimal ratio – and not maximum application – is the key to unlocking target crop yields.

But what is the extent of urea over-use? The go to reference for most academic analysis of fertilizer consumption are the annual fertilizer consumption figures published in Pakistan Statistical Yearbook by PBS and in the Annual Economic Survey. Based on the official statistics, up to 90 percent of annual fertilizer offtake is consumed by four major crops – wheat, cotton, sugarcane, and rice – of which, 50 percent is by wheat alone.

Because wheat is by far the largest crop - commanding 9 million hectares out of 22.5 million hectares total cropped area – that argument has long been considered intuitive. Moreover, because fertilizer offtake – based on monthly figures published by National Fertilizer Development Corporation (NFDC) – reveal equal distribution between kharif and rabi season – it is further assumed that wheat accounts for over 95 percent of fertilizer offtake during rabi.

The above relationship leads many in the environmentalist community to draw conclusions regarding a “excessive fertilizer (urea) consumption and cash crop cultivation nexus”, which cannot be easily dispelled considering the four cash crops continue to account for 70 percent of total farm area cropped. But would cultivating a diverse blend of more high value crops lead to lower fertilizer utilization?

But first, a short comment on national fertilizer consumption figures. The annual figures published by PBS and others are based on a 2005 Fertilizer Use Survey by NDFC which assumes 50 percent fertilizer application for wheat, 25 percent for cotton, 8 percent for sugarcane, and 6 percent for rice, and remainder 11 percent for other crops.

That assumption is highly suspect. Based on the survey, consumption of fertilizer for cotton increased by 17 percent between FY10 and FY19, never mind that the area under cotton cultivation has declined by over 1 million hectares during the same period. Could it be that cotton growers are applying incremental units of fertilizer, only to get poorer yield year after year? Similarly, while Pakistan’s maize output has doubled over the last decade, fertilizer offtake for maize remains negligible. Does increased maize production require no additional fertilizer application?

Data from Punjab government’s agriculture department would disagree. While it is impossible to determine crop-wise fertilizer consumption given absence of periodic/annual consumption studies, indicative/recommended fertilizer application levels (by Punjab government) can help glean some insight.

Absolute conclusions do not change much when recommended fertilizer levels from Punjab are incorporated. Afterall, wheat would remain the largest consumer of fertilizer – at 42 percent – due to the sheer expanse of its cultivation. But is it also most fertilizer intensive?

Turns out, major crops such as wheat, seed cotton, and rice would hardly fall among top 10 consumers of fertilizer if recommended levels of fertilizer per hectare were applied. (fertilizer-intensiveness is defined as volume of fertilizer applied per unit area). In the case of both urea, and DAP, the most fertilizer-intensive crops would actually be vegetables such as potato, tenda, bitter gourd, and tomatoes, along with sugarcane and maize featuring among the top 10.

How can the two sets of information be reconciled then? It is safe to conclude that the 2005 NDFC survey can now be discarded and not be made part of venerable official publications such as Economic Survey, seeing how it is based on outdated data and does not take into account changing farmer preferences for crops, or higher application of fertilizer is increasingly more popular crops such as sugarcane and corn.

Meanwhile, rice stands out as a notable exception as a low fertilizer intensive crop, based on both old and more recent data. Low fertilizer consumption of rice even in the 2005 survey attests to this fact, as does the lower recommended level of urea and DAP application per unit area in Punjab government’s latest statistics.

Wheat, however, remains the only constant. As the crop responsible for 90 percent of rabi season crop area, it continues to be responsible for excessive urea application during the season which is estimated at 53 percent higher than recommended!

Of course, the data must be treated carefully. Afterall, data concerning volume of fertilizer applied per unit area represent recommended levels, and not actual. Thus, the difference between recommended and actual fertilizer application during any given season is based on both normative and reported inputs. Moreover, if recommended fertilizer application level for every crop varies from region to region, the extrapolation of Punjab’s data to rest of the country may be substantially faulty. Nevertheless, it does raise questions whether encouraging cultivation of high value crops to reduce dependence on fertilizer intensive wheat and cotton can truly lead to lower fertilizer consumption.

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