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Agriculture’s Weakest Link

Despite past successes, Pakistan’s R&I system needs a deep revamp if agriculture is to overcome the challenges of the future, argues Dr Mubarik Ali.
Published 06 May, 2024 12:44pm

Agriculture is a key contributor to Pakistan’s economy, but its growth is declining. Nationally, agriculture accounts for 22.7% of Pakistan’s GDP, employs 37.4% of the labour force, and directly and indirectly accounts for nearly 80% of the total value of Pakistan’s exports. Yet, the sector’s growth has declined from 3.3% during 2001-2010 to 2.4% in 2011-2022.

Growth in any economic sector depends largely on the strength of its research and innovation (R&I) system. This article highlights agricultural R&I’s main achievements as well as the gaps that are hindering its ability to deliver faster growth, create resilience for climate change and deliver food and nutritional security.

Traceability and Sustainability
Established in the late 19th century, Pakistan’s R&I system is one of the oldest in the Subcontinent, and although it has expanded horizontally over the years to cover almost all agricultural commodities, ecoregions and disciplines, there has been little integration within and across research institutes and universities. Both provincial research institutes and extensions come under the provincial agriculture departments, but they work almost independently. Similarly, the federal research institutes on agriculture and water, which work on high-end strategic issues, have little integration with the relevant provincial institutes. Furthermore, agricultural universities have hardly any links with either federal or provincial research institutes, while the private sector focuses mainly on promoting their own products and has few opportunities to collaborate with the public sector R&I system.

According to a survey conducted in 2020, over 43,000 professionals and support staff are engaged in public sector agriculture R&I in Punjab and Sindh. About 31% are engaged in research and the remaining 69% are in agricultural extension (taking technologies to the relevant stakeholders); 61% of these resources are employed in crops and 39% in livestock, even though the contribution of the two sectors in GDP is the reverse. The R&I system is highly bureaucratic, as all scientific staff are supported by six non-professional and administrative staff members. The female strength is less than 10%. Estimates for 2018 suggest that Rs 10.8 billion were spent on crop R&I in Punjab and Sindh. Investments by the private sector in research is relatively small compared to other developing countries; although lately it has released some useful varieties of cotton and potato.

Successes and Achievements
Pakistan’s R&I system has been successful in generating new crop varieties, developing vaccines and diagnostic kits for major animal diseases, and producing and disseminating information and knowledge with respect to crop varieties and animal vaccines. Between 1947 and 2020, 923 crop varieties were developed, although most remained on the shelf and only a few reached the farmers’ fields. About 95% of these varieties were developed by the public sector. Although some varieties were developed for high-value crops like fruits, vegetables, pulses, oilseeds and floriculture, little emphasis was put on promoting these varieties to the farmer.

The release of crop varieties with higher-yield potential and new sources of pest resistance and tolerance has increased per-hectare farm yields for major crops by over three times since 1947. This has not only contributed to improving agriculture’s GDP; it has also helped farmers adapt to emerging climate stresses, enhance the nutrient content of food and prevent the widespread outbreaks of various diseases. It has also enhanced the per capita availability of food. For example, the annual per capita availability of wheat from domestic production has gone from 85 kilos in 1960 to 115 kilos in 2021. In other words, since 1947, the R&I system has not only fed five times more people; it has also fed them better.

The biggest impact on crop varieties was experienced during the Green Revolution, when, thanks to the introduction of water and fertiliser-responsive high-yielding varieties, yields for wheat doubled between 1965 and 1970, while rice yields increased by 60% between 1970 and 1975.

During this period, the government built dams, installed tube wells, provided incentives for the purchase of tractors and promoted the local fertiliser industry, inducing higher land-use intensity and increasing crop production, especially in Punjab and Sindh.

A recent success of the R&I system has been the phenomenal increase in maize production, a development attributed to the introduction of hybrid seeds along with improved management practices by the private sector. The spectacular growth in the poultry sector during the last three decades has also been a great achievement of the system, replacing the consumption of expensive red meat and helping overcome protein deficiency in the population. This is mainly attributed to the introduction of new poultry breeds (PIA-Shaver), the promotion of state-of-the-art poultry sheds, the wider availability of poultry feeds, an improved regulatory framework, the availability of poultry vaccines, and the promotion of associated management practices.

There have been some recent successes in fruit, vegetable and oilseed production, although it is still not certain whether these yields will be sustainable over a longer period of time. For example, a 100% increase in potato production and a 133% increase in potato exports between 2016 and 2022 are attributed to the introduction of hybrid potato seeds suitable for processing, associated management practices and the presence of a small-scale processing industry in the private sector. Yields for peaches and guavas increased by 80% and 70%, respectively, between 2017 and 2021. The production of fodder crops has quadrupled, while that of rapeseed and mustard, especially canola, has increased by 150% during the same period. However, crops like cotton remained in crisis, while the per-hectare and per-animal yields of major crops like wheat and rice remained stagnant over the period.

Although the system did bring about significant positive outcomes in terms of meeting Pakistan’s growing food requirements, it has failed to make the agri sector market competitive by enabling its stakeholders to respond to changing demands in the quality of agriculture products. Pakistan is losing big opportunities by not participating in the fast-expanding international fruit and vegetable market, which totals over $275 billion, while Pakistan’s share of it is about 0.1%.

This situation has been partly due to a lack of resources and partly to poor management in the R&I system. Only approximately 0.23% of the GDP from the crop sector is invested in R&I (the norm is 1.0%), compared to 0.35% in Bangladesh, 0.6% in China and 0.45% in India. More important than the lack of funds is the failure of R&I to develop effective planning and inter- and intra-institution coordination mechanisms that would involve private sector stakeholders, including producers, thereby ensuring an efficient use of scarce resources to meet market demands. As a result, R&I is a supply-driven, rather than demand-oriented, system in terms of addressing issues. For example, despite the increasing demand for value-added and processed products, R&I activities are mostly confined to farm production issues without sufficient emphasis on value chain development.

R&I is tightly controlled administratively and financially by federal and provincial bureaucracies and has little autonomy to mobilise or allocate human or financial resources on a need basis. Over 90% of the budget goes into paying salaries, with very little left to carry out research. Training opportunities are few and international collaborations have almost dried out. There are no incentives for researchers to develop patented products, as they have no share in the proceeds. Agriculture extension is still largely based on personal contacts and it is almost impossible to individually reach the growing number of small farmers. Modern approaches to extension that involve the private sector and reaching out to farmers are either missing or ineffective. It is worth noting that the most successful R&I systems in the world have been largely made autonomous by involving stakeholders and the private sector in research planning, funding and product dissemination.

Lack of Reform and Impact
Due to the lack of reform in agricultural R&I over the last three decades, performance is at a low ebb. Although the system is still as good as similar systems in, for example, Brazil, India or Mexico, when it comes to generating outputs like research papers and varieties, the outcomes are poor because they are either not relevant or not communicated to the stakeholders.

The consequences of this disconnect are serious. Firstly, despite the introduction of new varieties and technologies, the per-hectare and per-animal yields of most crops and livestock are lower than the world average, despite the fact that Pakistan has one of the best alluvial soils and irrigation systems in the world. As a consequence, agricultural commodities have lost their competitiveness. It is estimated that if farm-level yields were brought to par with world-average levels, this would add $10 billion annually to our agriculture sector. Secondly, R&I has failed to diversify to meet national and international demands for nutrition-rich and high-value products. The focus has been on major crops, with little emphasis on fruit, vegetables, oilseeds, and pulses.

As a result, Pakistan is spending $7.3 billion annually on importing food items, including $3.2 billion on edible oil, $0.75 billion on pulses, and $0.5 billion on tea. Thirdly, we have lost competitiveness at the secondary level because of the lack of investment in improving the value chain of primary farm products. The R&I system has been unable to introduce economically viable technologies for the value addition of local products, with the result that the quality of Pakistan’s produce does not match the demand from national and international markets. This is reflected in the fact that almost all exportable agricultural commodities fetch prices that are lower than the world average. Fourthly, little agricultural produce goes into processing. Unlike in China, Vietnam, and many other countries, we have largely failed to bring about a ‘small-scale’ industrial revolution, thus unable to generate new job and income opportunities for the rural poor. Overall, the inefficient and irrelevant R&I system has failed to tackle poverty, overcome nutrient deficiencies, and handle climate change impacts.

It is estimated that if the quality of Pakistan’s agricultural products is on par with the world average, Pakistan would be earning an additional $10 billion annually and creating millions of new jobs in rural and peri-urban areas.

Moving Forward
There is significant potential in the agriculture sector to enable the creation of new jobs, enhance incomes and foreign exchange earnings, and support the industry. However, to do so, the R&I system has to abandon its archaic, traditional system and move towards meeting the demand for ‘knowledge-based’ agricultural growth that responds to and fosters interaction among all stakeholders – universities, research, extension, producers, traders, and value-chain managers – in the public and private sectors, as well as keeping abreast of advances in modern research and management systems and changing demands. The immediate issue is not funding. It is about improving R&I planning, coordination and monitoring mechanisms in order to better utilise the available resources in high-impact areas.

Nine Ways to Boost Pakistan’s R&I System:

1. Pluralistic:
Develop partnerships with different players, including the private sector.

2. Diverse:
Address value chain issues and include agribusinesses, the food industry, policymakers, environmental groups and consumers.

3. A demand-oriented system:
Engage with stakeholders to identify, design, fund, implement and monitor R&I activities.

4. A result-oriented research culture:
Measure results through outputs and outcomes in the farm and agro-industry sectors rather than on the completion of research.

5. Flexibility and institutional autonomy:
For both public institutions and scientists working in research institutes, combined with increased accountability.

6. Service rules:
Define career paths and provide competitive salaries to attract qualified scientists and extension advisers on merit. Link rewards to defined, output-based incentives.

7. Capacity-building opportunities:
Flexibility and openness to interact with other institutions, universities, and the private sector in Pakistan and abroad.

8. Diversify funding:
Increase the amount and sustainability of funding, as well as empower a range of stakeholders; separate funding from service providers (currently both functions are performed by the government).

9. Policy and regulatory framework:
This includes intellectual property rights and incentivising a role for private sector R&I.

Reports referenced:
Agricultural and Livestock Innovation System: Achievements, Constraints, and Ways Forward

Diagnostic Analysis of the Sindh Agriculture Innovation System

Dr Mubarik Ali is former Member (Food and Agriculture), Planning Commission of Pakistan. He is currently a consultant on agriculture, food and nutrition policy, rural poverty and value chain development.