Chronic agricultural weakness

The layperson may assume that the agriculture sector is where strength may lie in Pakistan — and they would be wrong. In reality, the agriculture sector has been underperforming for years and has now faded to one of the lowest levels of productivity in the world according to the Pakistan Business Council. The sector made up a 19.5 per cent share of the GDP in 2016 an at the same time as ranging between 29 per cent and 52 per cent lower than the world’s best averages. The reasons are well-enough known and are typical of the underachievement felt in all sectors of the economy and not only in agriculture.

The numbers are grim. Pakistan produces 3.1 tonnes of wheat per hectare compared to 8.1 tonnes in France; and 2.5 tonnes of cotton compared to 4.8 tonnes in China. Sugarcane — 63.4 tonnes in Pakistan and 125.1 tonnes in Egypt. Rice — Pakistan 2.7 tonnes compared to 9.2 tonnes per hectare in the US. No crop sees Pakistan at parity or even close to parity with other producers.

Low yields impact right across the economy, hitting industrial production which contributes to higher costs. Exports are not what they could be, with rice and maize, sugar and sugar by-products as well as confectionery all below par in terms of potential. Agriculture is still a leading employer with 42 per cent of the labour force directly or indirectly working the land. Despite this as much as 50 per cent of output is wasted because of the unavailability of a cold chain, logistics in the form of inefficient crop extraction and poor processing.
Galloping urbanisation plays a part as the flight from the land to urban centres accelerates. This is driven as much by a poverty of potable water and health and education services as anything else. An agricultural daily wager may make as little as Rs100 compared to the Rs800 he may make as a labourer in many cities. A powerful magnet. As ever there is no quick fix but as things stand matters can only deteriorate further. The culprits? Underinvestment and a fading rural feudalism. The times they are a ‘changin’.

Published in The Express Tribune