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EDITORIAL: Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research Syed Fakhar Imam said the other day that it has indeed become a matter of great concern that we have been reduced to a food-importing country; that too, to the tune of billions of rupees every year. He said that as he waxed eloquent about the many ways in which the present government plans to revolutionise agriculture and turn things around, while as minister in charge of this sector he should have gone on and accepted that it is in fact a grave injustice that we have squandered away our natural comparative advantage in food production. The government has though, to its credit, decided to set up a National Agriculture Commission for development of agriculture education and research, which is a very important step in the right direction.

Why something like this wasn't done a long time ago is a question for our politicians to answer, but the fact is that government after government in this country took this entire sector and everything it provided for granted and left it to rot as the rest of the world embraced technology and mechanisation. The result is that other countries, which used to be behind us, are now well ahead of us in terms of production yields as well as exports. And though this government's decision to give agriculture centre-stage in the ongoing fiscal's budget shows that its thinking is correct, it must nonetheless realise that it will take more than sprinkling a small part of the development budget on this sector to really make things work.

The first order of business must be to catapult this sector into the 21st century and make it adapt to new technologies and methods in the shortest possible time. And since it still has more families associated with it than any other sector in the country, farmers must also be provided with the kind of environment in which they can farm for the benefit of the whole country without unnecessary worries. That's another extremely important point. It means not just better seeds and latest machines, but also schools and hospitals in their areas so they don't have to head to cities for the smallest problems.

Part of the research that the government is funding will also tell it that such things take time. And it is something of a shame that the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) administration has already taken three years to get off the mark as far as agriculture is concerned. But since food autarky is an extremely high priority and sensitive subject from each and every point of view, any movement in the right direction is appreciated. No doubt, among other things that will come out of that research is identification of the areas in which we missed the bus to technological innovation.

These are important and urgent decisions because they show up in very visible numbers in the annual budget. In the years that agri production has not been up to the mark, imports - often last minute - have never failed to blow a hole in the current account. Therefore, it's no surprise that ignoring such an important sector has had direct economic costs, some of which now force us to borrow more in the international market; and then borrow more to pay back with interest. Also, since our export sector is primarily agri-driven, it's also kept our commercial revenue restricted. Whatever strategies the government employs to deal with these issues need to be thought through properly. It is one thing for ministers to make speeches for public consumption, but quite another to craft policies that really deliver and make long-term difference. Restoring our production advantage will take a very long time, but what matters now is to move in the right direction with utmost speed.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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