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EDITORIAL: The bumper wheat crop provides a good example of how headlines can be a little misleading sometimes because it is turning out to be more a moment for reflection than a moment for celebration. A 3.25 percent increase in wheat cultivation area, combined with favourable weather and good labour-intensive techniques employed by farmers, might have produced two million more tonnes of wheat than expected, but not all the pieces that have been moved across the board to make this happen can be kept where they are, and that creates new problems for the government. For example, official figures suggest that the government would only need to import about 500,000 tonnes of wheat to make it to the next harvest with about 324,000 tonnes of carry-over stock. Yet if you scratch beneath the surface just a little you see that all sorts of factors that don’t usually show up on the radar, like feeding refugees, wheat smuggling to Afghanistan, etc., suddenly push the required wheat import figure to the tune of 1.5-2 million tonnes.

And that puts pressure right where it hurts the government the most, the foreign exchange reserves, and the problem is only made worse because wheat got more cultivation area last year at the cost of sugar and cotton - both cash crops - and now both commodities would have to be imported more as well. This seems to have made the new finance minister spring into action, and he’s duly directed National Food Security and Research Minister Fakhar Imam and Industries Minister Khusro Bakhtiar to ‘look for options to bring down the volume of food imports’. But while that definitely amounts to putting a tick in the right box at the right time, this situation demands a far quicker response than the usual, slow way in which the government machinery has got used to working. Everybody knows that the way out of this problem, at least in the immediate term, lies in improving per-hectare yields of crops so we can simply produce more and import less and the two ministers tasked with finding ways to reduce imports would do nobody any favours by spending yet more time and energy in reaching the same conclusion all over again.

Perhaps the finance minister’s, and everybody else’s, time was better spent investigating reports that unavailability of certified seeds and much lower than needed fertiliser intake have reduced our per hectare yield to one-third of its potential. There is, of course, also the low level of technological innovation that the entire agriculture sector suffers from. Such matters should have been addressed a long time ago and if it is indeed true that these drawbacks are still primarily responsible for the chronic low produce of the entire sector, and all that was (and still is) needed was political will and a dedicated programme of policy implementation, then it reflects all the more poorly on our entire governance system. For at stake is not just the yield or output of a few crops of the fortune of farmers that hold up the sector that employs the largest chunk of the population, but something as serious as food security for everybody in the country.

It says a lot that even after the record crop that beat all expectations we still struggle to be a completely food secure nation. Appearing alongside the news of the good harvest were results from a Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) survey, the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM) survey 2019-20, which revealed that 16.4 percent of households in the country are experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity with Balochistan in the lead (29.84pc), followed by Sindh (18.4pc), Punjab (15.16pc) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (12.75pc). Surely, even as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) spokespersons celebrate the record wheat output on television somebody must have asked behind the scenes that if even such a fine harvest doesn’t properly address food-security and instead squeezes reserves to the point that it hurts, then how are they going to maintain the upward curve and also keep reserves in check next year?

One mistake that the ruling party has made more often than not is leaving crucial stakeholders out of the loop when framing policies for a number of sectors and talking to them only with the situation deteriorates. Now that it must join heads to hammer out an urgent policy that will address very serious matters, it must make sure that all the right heads are called to the table.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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