According to a press release by Finance Ministry, the country has achieved highest ever sown area for wheat during the ongoing crop year 2021-22. At 9.23 million hectares, area under cultivation is 0.5 percent higher than last year; however, still 2.1 percent less than the target area of 9.43 million hectares.
Back in October 2021, the Federal Committee on Agriculture had fixed wheat production target of 28.9 million tons, targeting growth of 6 percent in output over the previous year, itself a highest ever in national history. The FCA had hoped for balanced increase of 3 percent in both area and yield, mindful of the difficulty in significantly raising productivity of a crop grown over 80 percent of available cultivable land.
Yet, raising the acreage under wheat is no small challenge either. Maximal area of 9.22 million hectares under wheat was last achieved in FY16, when area under competing crops such as spring maize used to be significantly lower. Over the past five years, area under spring maize has doubled to 0.4 million hectares in Punjab alone.
Only last year, higher wheat acreage knocked off over 0.2 million hectares from canola and gram crops. Considering that both total and net sown area in the country, are stagnant as per Economic Survey of Pakistan, any claim of significant increase in wheat acreage by official sources should be treated with a pinch of salt.
But even if the MoF’s claim of 9.23 million hectares sown is taken on face value, yield will now have to increase by 5.3 percent over last year to reach the target output of 28.9 million tons. This means that government target yield of 3.06 tons per hectares must now itself escalate by 2.2 percent, to 3.13 tons per hectare. Mind you, national average yield over 3 tons per hectares has for very long remained a holy grail of Pakistan’s wheat productivity, never been achieved in history.
Although progressive farmers may achieve yield as high as 5 tons per hectares, national average is pulled down both by high number of subsistence growers which cannot afford expensive inputs, and the cultivation over 1 million hectares in non-irrigated plains of northern Punjab, KP, and Balochistan, where yield is very poor.
Nevertheless, official communication by both MoF and SBP during January 2021 continues to share optimism on the ‘improved outlook for rabi crop output’. It must be emphasized that the authors have been careful in referring to the cropping season, and not necessarily the wheat crop. The conspicuous absence of risk to thesis due to non-availability of urea, and very high prices of DAP fertilizer during the critical sowing stages, has not gone without notice.
Meanwhile, conflicting reports from farmers have contributed to the uncertainty. According to a news report, Sindh Chamber of Agriculture has expressed hope for bumper crop due to well-timed rains. On the other hand, members of Agriculture Republic, an advocacy group consisting of progressive farmers, have expressed fears of nitrogen insufficiency and rust attacks. But the devil may lie in the details.
According to a MoF note, Punjab has voluntarily enhanced its sowing target in order to help achieve production target of 28.9 million tons. Considering that the national target was missed by 0.2 million hectares despite rise in sown area in Punjab means the shortfall has occurred elsewhere. Back in November 2021, Sindh Abadgar Board had forecast a decline in cultivated area in the province. Mind you, average yield in Sindh is higher by at least 25 percent compared to Punjab historically.
If acreage in Sindh has indeed fallen short, while farmers in Punjab suffer from both rust attacks and nitrogen insufficiency due to fertilizer unavailability, target output may become out of reach. Unfortunately, Sindh government does not release any provisional estimates of surveyed area, thus all independent assessments so far are just that: estimates. The crop target may not have been unthinkable to begin with, but it sure as hell looks ambitious mid-season. Fingers crossed.