EDITORIAL: It’s not entirely surprising that the 3.5 percent agriculture growth target for 2021-22 is going to be missed in light of recent news that targets of major crops, including wheat and cotton, have already been missed.
But it is pretty surprising that the trend of losing our comparative agri advantage is strengthening every year and it hasn’t yet caused the kind of anxiety that would force policymakers to do something about it. Now we have to import a lot of commodities, including staple food, that we were comfortably self-sufficient in till just a few years ago. That increases the nation’s food insecurity and puts more pressure on reserves for no understandable reason at all.
Things are definitely not going to get any better on their own because now we also have a full-blown water crisis on our hands. It turns out that this year’s water shortage will be greater than expected as well, 38 percent instead of 22 percent, and that’s got Punjab and Sindh at each other’s throats; hurling accusations over the current arrangement of water release and distribution.
And the unpleasantness witnessed between their representatives at a meeting of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Water Resources the other day was made worse by the fact that nobody has any idea how their differences are going to be resolved. The only thing that can be said with certainty at this point in time is that this problem is definitely going to get worse before it gets any better; rather if it ever gets better.
The economy could have done without these irritants at this time. The country is already on course for the worst trade deficit in its history and the need to import food to keep a lid on public discontent and cotton to feed the export industry is going to be too much for the current account to handle if it goes on too long. That makes agriculture a very urgent priority.
There’s not much that can be done about things like weather patterns and climate change in a hurry. But it is unforgivable that problems like sudden fertiliser shortage, fast rising input prices, poor quality seeds, delayed announcement of support prices, and outdated irrigation methods still persist and are also likely to for a lot longer.
It’s also a shame that the country’s political elite is always too busy settling personal and political scores between themselves. Even now, as the country faces an acute economic crisis, they have no qualms about placing their interests first and even plunging the system into an unprecedented constitutional crisis just to come out on top.
Sadly, any hope that the overbearing presence of feudal lords in parliament would benefit the agri sector have also long been dashed. Because their penchant for acquiring sugar mills and diverting more and more land towards sugarcane production has in fact done the sector, as well as the country’s water resources, a world of harm.
Surely, it can’t be impossible to adopt modern technology, get stocks of better seeds, stay ahead of the curve in announcing support prices, and improve the irrigation system. The real problem seems lack of political will, which also explains why these things are never debated enough at the highest levels and not nearly enough red flags have been raised during our fall from an agri surplus to a food-importing and water-scarce country.
Agriculture is not just the biggest component of the economy, but it is also the biggest employer and has the largest number of families associated with it. That means more Pakistani households directly depend on it for their survival. The rest of the country depends on it for its food, of course, while industry needs it for its exports. So it wouldn’t be a bad idea for leading politicians to start taking it as seriously as their own political survival and future.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022