Rethinking agricultural priorities in Pakistan

Although a significant portion of Pakistan’s workforce still works in agriculture, this sector is poorly organized and inefficient, and is now increasingly threatened by climate change. To better address the varied challenges facing our agricultural sector, there is a need to rethink the top-down process of agricultural development that continues to bypass poor and landless farmers.

There is a colonial legacy that continues to haunt the agricultural sector in Pakistan, but this damaging legacy has been perpetuated by the country’s post-colonial governments. The British created canal settlements by making large investments in irrigation systems, but this was mainly aimed at stimulating the export of cash crops such as cotton to supply Manchester’s textile mills. Instead of asking smallholders and landless farmers to cultivate newly irrigated land, the British relied on peasant landowners to increase agricultural yield. The Canal Colonies also allocated large agricultural lands to the military, setting the precedent of military farms and providing farmland for retiring officers.

Vast cultivable areas across rural Pakistan are still owned by very few families, while a significant proportion of farmers own very little or no land. While those with sufficient resources can rent land to cultivate it, the poorest farmers must either work as sharecroppers, seasonal workers or daily wage earners.

Despite the urgent need to harness the potential of the poorest farmers, agricultural policies in Pakistan have been dominated by top-down priorities. While the so-called “Green Revolution” in the 1950s and 1960s boosted agricultural productivity, it relied primarily on the increased use of pesticides and fertilizers and mechanization. Apart from the ecological impact of chemical farming, the promotion of mechanization has proven to be a labor displacement strategy that has led many poor farmers and sharecroppers to be driven off farmland and into the urban slums.

Fixed cropping patterns, dependence on a few major crops, narrow gene pools, poor seed quality and inefficient water management practices are often cited as major issues that continue to hamper productivity agriculture in Pakistan today. Although it is a major producer of wheat, rice, sugar cane and cotton, the rural areas of the country remain poor and food insecurity is a growing problem for the whole country.

The country’s large and medium farmers continue to engage in wasteful practices such as flood irrigation to grow crops like rice, and they have recklessly drained underground aquifers using pumps to water their crops. . These inefficient water use practices have rendered large tracts of land uncultivable due to waterlogging and salinity.

Urgent action is needed to improve agricultural production practices across the country. As the climate change crisis gathers pace, we will continue to see more floods, droughts and increasing water shortages. There is no single technological solution to the various threats posed by climate-induced disasters. Instead, adaptation is going to require the pursuit of a range of strategies. Some of these strategies will need to be adopted in the short term, while others will require a longer gestation period.

In the longer term, Pakistan needs to shift to growing higher yielding crops as well as heat and drought tolerant crops specifically suited to the various agro-ecological zones of the country. In the shorter term, however, using agricultural methods such as terracing can help improve soil health and maximize water use. Technological methods such as laser leveling could also enable more efficient use of water, and solar-powered irrigation systems would help reduce air pollution and emissions. Yet the adoption of such measures should not ignore poor farmers, as this would aggravate rural inequalities and lead to further de-paysation and corresponding pressure on already booming urban centers.

It is vital to avoid elite capture and to make agricultural policies in Pakistan more progressive and accessible. In addition to ensuring that landless agricultural workers receive fairer wages, there is a need to design subsidy programs and other incentives that seek to entice smallholder farmers to become actively involved in making agriculture more sustainable. productive, resilient and sustainable.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 15and2022.

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