The threat of food insecurity

How best can we harness the productive capacity of poor and landless farmers?

Syed Mohammad Ali June 07, 2024
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne and is the author of Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge


Tackling rural poverty and addressing food insecurity remain serious challenges for Pakistan, which are being compounded by growing climate-induced threats. Pakistan was one of the countries which implemented the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ touted by international aid agencies, especially USAID, as the means to maximise agricultural productivity and overcome hunger. While yields did increase due to use of chemical inputs, including varied fertilisers and pesticides, and imported seed varieties, these gains were accompanied by a major dispossession of poorer farmers and severe ecological damages. However, instead of rethinking how best to harness the productive capacity of poor and landless farmers, who comprise the bulk of the rural labour force, Pakistan like many other ill-fated ‘developing’ countries has been toying with the idea of enabling corporate farming.

World Bank-supported poverty reduction strategies in the early 2000s explicitly began endorsing the need for Pakistan to encourage capital intensive farming as the means to not only boost productivity but also to alleviate rural deprivation. Pakistan began wooing investment in corporate farms. Sporadic efforts by varied governments to attract such foreign investments in agriculture did not bear significant results. However, some prominent local entrepreneurs did implement this idea. My own doctoral research at one of the leading corporate farms in the country over a decade ago identified quite impressive techniques being used to manage water, and to make sizeable profits growing cash crops, but I did not find these profits trickling down to the poor.

Corporate farms occupy large amounts of land without creating many employment opportunities for local farmers. Such farms prefer to rely on labour displacing machinery. For instance, the corporate farm I conducted my research on had an impressive management team, but it did not have a permanent team of agricultural workers. Instead, it used seasonal workers and other daily waged labour, including women and young girls, for weeding, sowing and crop picking. These poor labourers were hired via contractors, so they had no permanent employment status, and they were also being paid significantly less than the formal sector minimum wage. Given these basic dynamics, it remains difficult for me to understand why corporate farming is still being considered a viable strategy for ushering in progress and prosperity for our rural populace.

Besides trying to adopt a corporate model in farming, the current government is again trying to invite foreign investors to lease agricultural land. Even if foreign companies are convinced to lease land which is currently unproductive, they will need enormous amounts of freshwater to grow crops which will mostly be taken overseas. It would be an unwise venture to allow for-profit corporations to grow water-intensive crops in a country where freshwater is already in short supply, to generate short-term revenues.

Corporate farms are unlikely to care about which food crops are best suited for Pakistan’s ecology or to agonise over which crops have the potential to be cultivated using sustainable agricultural practices. Their main objectives will not include focusing on growing crops that can most efficiently address the country’s alarming levels of malnutrition, chronic hunger and stunting. Instead, corporate farms will primarily remain preoccupied with the imperative of maximising profits. Corporate farming will hence be no more of a blessing for Pakistan than the ‘green revolution’ was, or as feudalism is, even today.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 7th, 2024.

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