Agriculture is the mainstay of our economy. Nearly half of our employed labour force works in agriculture and this sector provides the largest source of our foreign exchange earnings. However, the agriculture sector is badly managed. Its current emphasis on boosting agricultural yield does not adequately respond to some of the most pressing challenges related to this sector. These challenges include food insecurity, rural poverty, water scarcity, environmental and associated health-related threats.
Developing countries with large agrarian sectors like our own need to rely on labour absorbing and ecologically friendly farming techniques, rather than elite-led and market-driven strategies for agricultural production. The so-called ‘Green Revolution’ is credited with reducing food imports by boosting our agricultural yield, but adopting this strategy also increased our reliance on capital-intensive farming using increasing amounts of mechanisation and agro-chemicals.
Moreover, the Green Revolution caused serious environmental damage and it began driving many poor peasants, especially sharecroppers, off agricultural lands due to increasing commercialisation of farming. Poor farmers who sharecrop cannot afford to pay upfront rents, use of which has become increasingly common across agricultural zones of rural Pakistan. Agricultural growth policies being promoted today are not very different. Their benefits also do not reach the large number of small and landless farmers. Poor people who have not shifted to urban slums remain compelled to work land owned by others for daily or seasonal wages to produce crops meant to earn foreign exchange, rather than improve the food security of poor households.
Pakistan is today facing threats of uneven rural growth, land degradation, increasing water scarcity, all of which are being compounded by the threat of climate change. Pesticide and fertiliser use continue to cause havoc to our environment, contaminating precious water resources, and causing major human health hazards. Scientists have recently found unsafe levels of harmful and substandard pesticide concentration in areas surrounding Lahore, which pose serious health risks.
Yet, our policymakers seem to lack the vision and the interest to focus on alternative and more environmentally-friendly modes of agricultural production. Farming by organic methods may provide less impressive yields compared to agrochemical methods, but the benefits organic production brings in terms of decreasing environmental damage and reducing the cost of agricultural production, and increased export revenues are well worth it. In poorer countries like our own, smaller farmers are not able to apply heavy doses of fertilisers and pesticides and many of them are already producing crops using a mix of organic and conventional farming techniques. It is however vital to support small farmers technically in making optimal use of natural inputs like residues, compost and crop rotation.
At present, there may not be sufficient demand for organic crops locally due to their higher prices, but there is certainly a market for such crops internationally. Pakistan, for example, has great potential to introduce organic rice as major export commodity in the international market, like India has managed to do.
Increasing the proportion of organically grown crops however would need serious effort. It would require reversing and replacing many of the prevalent policies of agricultural production. Instead of importing more pesticides under subsidy schemes which provide rife opportunities for kickbacks, we would have to begin ensuring that natural weed and insect control measures are revived. Simultaneously, we need to develop efficient and accurate organic certification programmes for both agricultural inputs and outputs, which are easily accessible by smaller farmers.
Unfortunately, our government and donor agency supported interventions continue trying to increase agricultural yield using capital-based models of agricultural production, championed by mid-level and large ‘progressive farmers’. Such policies continue to drive the poorer agricultural workforce off the farms.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2018.