Agriculture: Pay Attention or Starve
By Dr A Q Khan
Muhammad Binyameen (the same name as that of the younger brother of Hazrat Yusuf A.S.), a Pakistani PhD scholar at an agricultural university in Sweden, has drawn my attention to one of the most important problems being faced by Pakistan – agriculture. Hardly anyone pays attention to it and even fewer speak about it. Only when there is a shortage of wheat, sugar, vegetables, etc., do we hear that the government has raised the fixed buying prices of certain commodities. There is no long-range planning, no precautionary steps taken for the future.
Pakistan's economy depends heavily on agriculture. It accounts for about 25 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP), and I believe that more than half of our labor force is engaged in this important sector. Since there is insufficient rainfall, most agriculture is dependent on water supplied through almost 40,000 miles of irrigation canals – the largest canal system in the world. Most of this water comes from the Indus River; some from other rivers flowing in Punjab. Unfortunately, poor drainage causes salinity, affecting large tracts of invaluable agricultural land.
We all know that wheat is the main food crop in Pakistan, followed by rice, millet, maize, pulses, barley, vegetables and fruits. Cotton and Basmati rice are by far the most important cash crops, bringing in valuable foreign exchange. Other crops include sugar cane, tobacco, oil seeds.
The agricultural sector
-- provides food to about 160 million people;
-- is responsible for about 70-80 percent of our total export earnings;
-- employs about 50 percent of the total work force;
-- is the main source of livelihood for the rural population;
-- provides raw materials for many industries and a market for many locally produced industrial products.
A few words here about the agricultural sciences. Since time immemorial, agriculture has played a prominent and important role in the lives of human beings. People migrated long distances to find fertile lands to settle. Many wars were fought over land. In the world at large, almost 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture for its livelihood, which lies at the root of many key issues in society, i.e., production and supply, international trading patterns and their development, over-exploitation of land and natural resources and impact on the environment, to name but a few.
In the developed countries, agriculture supports fewer people but it uses a higher proportion of budget resources. For example, a small country like the Netherlands exports $5 billion worth of farm produce and flowers per year. Their people are well fed, so they face issues like food surpluses, agricultural support prices, alternative land uses and enterprises less hostile to the environment, sustaining farm incomes and rural economies, etc. In the developing world, the problems of feeding the people from the limited natural resources, poverty, population growth and deterioration of the environment become more acute with every passing year. Developing countries, including Pakistan, need more people trained in agriculture, horticulture, food technology and the various sciences connected thereto in order to be able to make better use of the limited resources. In Pakistan in particular, there is an urgent need for economics and management studies applied to the whole of the food chain and associated industries and services.
The two biggest problems facing Pakistan today is uncontrolled population growth and the urbanization of fertile land. As pointed out to me by Mr Binyameen, the worst affected areas are in Punjab – including Sahiwal, Okara, Vehari, Multan – where hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile land are being lost to housing colonies. Beside urbanization, large areas of fertile land are being lost to salinity.
Our population is increasing so fast that all efforts to keep up with the need to feed, clothe and shelter people have become almost impossible. At the time of partition, the population of West and East Pakistan together was hardly 80 million. After the separation of Bangladesh, our population was 80-85 million. Now it is around 170 million – impossible for a developing country to cope with. There is an urgent need to educate our population, especially the rural population, about the necessity of restricting the size of the family. This should be executed on war footing, just like the Europeans, Japanese and Chinese are doing. Five babies are born per minute in Pakistan! An intensive campaign is required that should be run by educated staff and which offers incentives to the uneducated. I myself opted for vasectomy after we were blessed with two daughters and felt our family to be complete, and have never regretted it.
A possible suggestion in this regard could be where lady health workers of District Health Units give incentives to encourage and persuade women in the rural areas to use three-monthly injections to avoid pregnancy. The DHUs should keep records while health workers should keep notebooks recording details like names and dates. A bonus of, say, Rs2,000, should be given at the time of the injection. In the long term, such an amount to each recipient would amount to peanuts compared to the cost of dealing with the disaster. Local Unions and local imams should also be taken on board, providing incentives to convince them of the urgency for an immediate need for family planning.
Population explosion leads to uncontrolled expansion of residential areas. I can still remember how we took a visiting Chinese delegation to show them cities and suburbs almost 30 years ago. The visiting minister afterwards remarked that we were heading for a disaster as we were covering extremely fertile land with cement and bricks – i.e., houses and houses. To avoid this, a strict code of planning cities/towns should be enforced. No extensions on fertile lands should be allowed and such housing colonies should be built on non-fertile lands only. If we do not take drastic measures now, this country of ours won't have enough space left to grow anything -- there won't be enough to eat and not enough to cover our bodies with. Clean high-rise buildings with shopping/workshop centers on non-fertile land are the need of the day.
Another looming problem is the greenhouse effect which is changing our climate and affecting our agricultural crops and fisheries. In a recent communication to an English daily, Mr Asif Ali Abro drew attention to this danger. It was pointed out that though Pakistan is responsible for only 0.4 percent of annual global emission of greenhouse gases, it ranks 12th in the list of those most affected by climate change. He suggested a remedy to protect our agriculture from the disastrous impacts of global warming by making substantial investments in biotechnology. He also pointed out the urgent need to develop high-yield, drought/flood/salinity resistant varieties of crops, especially wheat and rice. There are some good institutions in Pakistan already working in this field, but more concerted, goal-oriented efforts are needed and the government must invest generously in this field to safeguard our future. I myself was instrumental in establishing the state-of-the-art Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering at Karachi University for this very purpose.
I am very well aware of my limited knowledge in this field, but my acquaintance, association and friendship with such experts as Mr Shafi Niaz, Mr Zafar Iqbal, Dr Abdul Hafeez, Prof Dr Khalid Mahmood Khan and my old friend from Holland (now in Canada), Prof Dr Mahmood Hasan Khan, enabled me to pick up some threads to put this piece together. Many excellent articles and suggestions have been written on this topic by these experts. We need a solid government policy to tackle the prevention of this looming catastrophe using the services of these experts.
Before I conclude, I would like to quote what Khalil Gibran wrote decades ago. I have taken the liberty of changing the word "pity" to "curse."
Curse is on the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Curse is on the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats a bread it does not harvest, drinks a wine that flows not from its own wine-press.
Curse is on the nation that acclaims the bully as hero and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.
Curse is on the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between the sword and the block.
If we read "dictator" for "bully" and "medals and badges" for "glittering," we have a true picture of our country. (Courtesy The News)