Over the last century, domestic demand for food has escalated as our population has increased radically. According to United Nations, with current growth rate, population is expected to double by 2050 and food demand is projected to increase anywhere between 59% to 98% by then.
It is amazing to realize the enormous potential of agriculture sector to deal with this thin-skinned dilemma. Since agriculture sector has a ripple effect on economy; Pakistan’s agriculture sector needs to be modeled in a way that we have not seen before to confront the forecasted demand for food. Climate change-driven water insufficiency, urbanization, lack of investments, and rising production costs - all are posing a challenge to food security as well as the economy of Pakistan.
The regular food production in Pakistan is not sufficient to meet demand-supply gap. Pakistan has become net importer of food. Therefore, in tandem with current production system, we need to adopt increasing productivity measures to improve our ailing economy. The substantial decline in agriculture output of Pakistan can be grappled by transforming our barren land into green lands. Globally increased drought, deforestation, and intensive farming methods are turning an area half the size of Britain into desert every year.
As per the United Nations, by 2030, 135 million people could lose their homes and livelihoods to desertification. Pakistan arguably has enormous agriculture potential. It is fundamentally an agriculture country, whose two-third population is dependent on agriculture-related activities. However, as reported by UNDP, 80% of Pakistan’s area consist of arid or semi-arid lands, and these terrains are becoming vulnerable to desertification — a process by which cultivable land befalls into desert owing to drought, deforestation, primitive and improper agricultural practices, climate change, or amalgamation of all these.
As stated by Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, around 1.46 million hectares of area documented for the year 2019-2020 in Punjab is under ‘cultivable wasteland’; it is that uncultivated farm area which is fit for cultivation but is not cropped on account of numerous reasons such as water logging and salinity, electricity, technology and resource constraints, or inadequate capital. In spite of what preceded, the major catalyst behind poor development of these barren lands is deprivation of value creation paradigm coupled with lack of vision.
In Pakistan, we have large arid areas in southern Punjab — Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, DG Khan, Bhakkar, Khushab, Layyah, etc. — Balochistan and Sindh, which due to relatively marginalized water pumping system, sparsely available water, or brackish water are becoming a grave threat to economy. Yet, surveys have shown that there are belts of lands in these areas where ground aquifers of sweet water of different qualities are available underground for irrigation.
But we are not irrigating these belts since the local communities are not aware of availability of ground aquifers, the high costs of drilling the underground resources, as well as limitation of energy and resource make it unfeasible for smallholder farmers to operate at efficient scale or to make any profitable commercial activity.
These farmers have a myopic view as they are trapped in vicious cycle of devastation; neither are they in a position to grow crops nor can they find sources of water irrigation due to resource-starved land and lack of investments. It is noteworthy that once these lands become fertile, they will be capable to provide a consistent ecosystem for soil to nurture and grow. Countries across the globe are crafting ways to maneuver untapped production potential of barren lands.
For example, China is constantly transforming its deserts into green lands. The Mu Us Desert, one of China’s four major deserts, that covers an area of 42,200 square kilometers, was undergoing desertification, but it has vanished from the map, as 93% of the land has become green. The saline-alkaline tolerant crops are changing the dynamics of agriculture in deserts as far away as Dubai. On top of that, from drip irrigation to tougher seeds, Israeli innovation for growing crops naturally is increasing efficacy of doing agriculture in barren lands. Farmers in the United Arab Emirates have begun using a Norwegian technology of mixing nano-clay with water and bind them to sand particles to condition the desert soil for growing food in deserts. However, the point of contention is, how are we going to transform Pakistan’s barren lands to their maximum potential? How barren lands can offer a stream of opportunities to all stakeholders — be it large landowners, smallholder farmers, agriculture corporates, or investors?
Keeping in view Pakistan’s arid land pedology (soil science), vulnerability of smallholder farmers, and detrimental climate change - we can nonetheless regulate desired results. Government and corporate sector both should come forward and boost growth of barren lands - resulting in big harvest and higher yields. Under public-private partnership (PPP) mode we can achieve sustainable growth. Government must speed up its effort to institutionalize awareness and vocational centers in Pakistan to promote agri-education. It needs to drive nascent programmes to not only accelerate pilot projects to maturity level but also empower students and entrepreneurs to step forward towards autonomous farming transition by integrating IT tools and harnessing tech-skills for the sake of smart agriculture. The district-wise data of GPS mapping of water aquifers with exact GPS coordinates should be made available to the farmers for different parts of provinces. Once such areas are found, areas with potential for agricultural land development can be identified. Risk needs to be watered down by government through overhauling the policies, incentivize small farmers, and encourage students predominantly from IT sector towards smart agriculture.
The need is even more acute to be fulfilled by private sectors that can turn out to be real change agents. Corporate sectors can collaborate and employ their efforts while promoting common interest to stop desertification of arable land, and turn around the large swathes of arid regions in Punjab and elsewhere in the country into cultivable land. This may look to be a daunting task, but it isn’t impossible to pull it off.
Others in the Middle East and elsewhere across the globe have successfully done by boosting long-run growth through their corporate sector. Subsumed by Musharakah (partnership), corporate sector can ensure field efficiency with farm management skills, information dissemination, capital availability with long-term vision, and effective execution. Taken together, these solutions governed through Musharakah (partnership) can create sizeable opportunity flux for all stakeholders.
Through targeted development in barren lands i.e. from identifying, acquiring to developing the land - the land in parallel to its production may potentially provide between threefold to fourfold gains in 2-3 years’ time span. Experts of pedology of barren land with their extensive experience can advise farmers with customized solution to get the right fertilization, right crop-selection, and right agro-forestry within right timescale. The barren land with précised farming tools through continued R&D and demand-driven production can meet supply crunch, create a wider market canvas for farmers, upgrade international trade-flow, and create sustainable solutions to support long-term agriculture development.
Barren lands are scientific marvel and living bank accounts that can mitigate climate crisis, food insecurity, and enhance economic opportunities for Pakistan. Agriculture has all the indispensable charm of boosting economic livelihood of farmers, generating employment, and giving promising profits to its stakeholders. It is evident that agriculture investment, with its landscape diversity, has delivered strong returns in the past. The need of the hour demands practical mindset shift from ‘Waiting for Godot’ mentality. With significant investments in barren land embodied in Musharakh (partnership) of investor and agricultural manager, we can make headway towards collective sustainable growth.
(The writer is founder and CEO of Enrichers Investment Group with strong interest in agriculture development)
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022