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EDITORIAL: Just days after the prime minister thundered, while counting his administration’s many achievements, that wheat production would exceed the target again this year, it turns out that it has not. In fact, the target of producing 28.9 million tons from 9.2 million hectares of land for Rabi season has been missed by 2.5 percent, and now production is estimated at 26.8 million tons from an area of 8.00 million hectares.

This shortfall owes to low fertiliser offtake and unfavourable weather conditions. Yet while there’s little that can be done about the latter, especially in an environment where rain is still the principal source of water for large cropping areas, the former had trouble written all over it because of sharply escalating prices. And despite quite a number of warnings, from all sorts of stakeholders, the government did not take much notice and failed to enact policies to protect farmers.

Now, as a result of this shortfall, not only does the government, especially the agriculture ministry, have some egg on its face, but it’s also going to have to answer for the money that expensive wheat import will run into. Wheat, along with oil, is at the very centre of the commodity super-cycle that is playing out; buoyed first by supply bottlenecks of the post-lockdown opening and then by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

That’s bad news for Pakistan, because it’s a major importer of oil and now a regular importer of wheat as well. Now foreign reserves, which just declined by 19.5 percent on a weekly basis to barely above $12 billion, will come under that much more stress; especially since the prime minister has frozen fuel prices till the budget.

It’s another story altogether that Pakistan, once the textbook agri-economy, now regularly imports its staple food. And while some problems are too long-term, and have been caused by neglect of too many things, to have any quick fixes, others like setting support prices in time are not that hard to overcome. The government’s commitment to strengthening the agriculture sector is appreciated, but it hasn’t quite gone the extra mile in certain cases, and it’s a shame that unnecessary problems end up affecting things like reserves and the budget at the most inopportune time.

It’s that much more important to keep this sector in shape because it also powers the main export industry. That’s why its stakeholders light up with expectations every time a new administration promises to take their input and introduce modern farming technology; only to be disappointed when the same old cycle repeats itself.

Yet the matter of wheat is far more sensitive than commodities like cotton. The government should be taking steps to ensure a steady increase in productivity, considering our explosive population growth rate if nothing else, and it must be made very clear to the entire machinery that deceleration is as unacceptable as it is unaffordable. And better production will be very difficult to ensure unless the sector itself is represented when and where policies are framed.

This adds to the worries of the government. With reserves falling, deficit expanding, and the IMF programme in freeze, things look certain to get a lot worse before they get any better.

That the rupee sets a new low every day isn’t helping things at all either, nor is still-increasing inflation; which opens the door to another possible interest rate hike not far down the road. Add to that all the political instability and the resultant uncertainty and you have the perfect toxic mix as far as the economy is concerned. Increasing food insecurity, in this situation, would be the last straw. It’s very important, therefore, that agriculture gets more attention in Kharif season.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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