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That Pakistan has one of the world’s top ten cattle inventory has encouraged many to pin hopes to the country’s meat export potential. Talks of reaping this potential have been making rounds since at least two decades. Yet to date, Pakistan’s bovine exports account for barely 1 percent of the country’s total goods export and less than 0.2 percent of total global meat imports. What then is keeping this potential from being materialised?

It so happens that matters of pedigree, or rather the lack thereof, and the prevalence of foot and mouth disease are among the top three structural issues preventing the country’s meat exports from taking off; the third being the quality of breed. “In order for Pakistan to export meat to a significant market like China, we need to develop a chain of farm-to-fork traceability,” Kamran Khalili, the CEO of Al-Shaheer Foods said in a recent interview with BR Research. (See Brief Recording section, Jan 3, 2020)

China isn’t the biggest meat buyer of the world. The US, and the EU countries are also big buyers, whereas within Asia, Japan is another big importer. But when to comes to meat, most countries trade regionally, and in this region, Pakistan’s biggest hope is China, especially after the revised FTA.

If the Trade Map statistics are any guide, China imported almost 9 percent of the world’s total meat imports in 2018. That says a lot about the magnitude of potential revenue that exists for Pakistan if problems regarding traceability were to be resolved. Pakistan’s export markets are mostly limited to the Middle East, that too essentially, catering to Pakistani and South Asian diaspora in that region. “The Arabs are still consuming the meat coming from Brazil or other countries” says Zia Banday, senior fellow at Pakistan Institute of Development Economics who has closely looked at international meat trade as an entrepreneur.

While corporate farms exist in Pakistan’s poultry sector, there is a dearth of big farms in livestock sector, hindering the task of record-keeping.  BR Research spoke to a host of private and public sector livestock experts (most of whom wanted to remain anonymous), and all of them said that livestock farming in the country is limited to unorganized farmers and ‘mandiwalas’.

An industry expert informed that 90 percent of livestock animals are farmed in a traditional manner by small time farmers who operate in their restricted capacity in terms of funds, research and expertise. A mere 4 percent of the livestock cattle, according to industry approximates, is farmed using latest technology in a modern, organized way. With an industry structure like this, how does one develop traceability?

According to Aijaz Mahesar, Secretary Livestock and Fisheries Department Sindh, traceability can be developed on a self-financing basis like NADRA on public private partnership. In contrast, another expert suggests that traceability could be incentivized; if traditional farmers receive a premium on the sale of a traceable animal, they would be more willing to maintain a record and/or register. The latter would entail doing away with the price control on retail meat prices in domestic market.

Secondly, in order to engage in international meat trade, the product must have consistent quality. This can be ensured by breed development combined with elimination of foot & mouth disease.

The livestock population that currently exists in Pakistan is for dual purpose, dairy and meat, whereas competing livestock exporting economies have developed different breeds for dairy and meat purposes, because the yield derived from the two breeds is incomparable.

There are three possible ways to develop a beef breed in Pakistan. One is to import live animals and develop a breed with local cows. However, the problem is that foreign breed may not survive Pakistan’s extreme weather conditions; and not to forget the whole process would be rather expensive. Another way is to use embryo technology to fast track the breed development process; but that too is an expensive proposition. The third possibility is to develop the breed locally which although would be a cheaper option, but it would take at least 10 years for material results.

Making the country’s livestock FMD free is another arduous task. To achieve this, if the whole country cannot be declared FMD free, then it is vital to develop FMD free zones. This would require constant surveillance to identify animals that are tested positive, and keep outside animals from joining the herd inside the zone. Here, Punjab has the most potential since it boasts the biggest chunk of domestic cattle population.

Although these problems and their solutions have been known for nearly a decade, so far the work has only been done on rearing and regular treatment of livestock instead of research and development. In recent years a few centers located in Punjab have begun work on breed development, but industry sources say that progress on traceability is still questionable. The National Center for Livestock Breeding, Genetics and Genomics in collaboration with the Research Center for Conservation of Indigenous Breeds (RCCIB), Jhang and the Pakistan Sahiwal Cattle Breeders Society are working on conservation of pure-bred cattle and development of beef breed. But that too will take time for it to show results.

Pakistan’s potential in agriculture and livestock sector is not breaking news, but the existence of potential alone does not reap benefits. Plans for developing traceability and making FMD free zones have been made before; the last one under Shabaz Shariff-led Punjab government. But those plans too were left catching dust. It’s time to act decisively, and act now; if the Middle East also demands animal certification then that would also become an opportunity lost to complacency.