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A New Look at Agriculture

To progress effectively, agricultural practices need to adopt new frameworks and, most of all, new mindsets. Shoaib Siddiqui has a few ideas.
Published 06 May, 2024 12:41pm

Agriculture forms the backbone of Pakistan’s economy and any significant upheaval that could negatively impact farmer economics can potentially lead to food insecurity, environmental degradation and social unrest. Although concern for the environment is a global matter, the social unrest aspect is unique to Pakistan. Pakistan is the fifth-most populous country in the world and 75-80% of its population resides in the Indus River Valley, which in turn comprises just 25-30% of the country’s total land area. In these circumstances, any decline in agricultural output could exacerbate social tensions, giving rise to instability in rural areas and leading to further urbanisation in cities that are already stretched beyond their original design capacity. There is therefore, an urgent need to invest in Pakistan’s agriculture practices, which require more political will than money.

Water Use Associations (WUAs)
Pakistan’s irrigation system is outdated and in need of significant investment. We have grossly undervalued the importance of maintaining and incrementally building upon the irrigation system we inherited from the British. A way forward would be to set up WUAs at the community level. These associations would be responsible for maintaining the irrigation and drainage infrastructure, resolving water-related conflicts and promoting water-saving practices among farmers. Their capacity-building skills would be needed in areas such as water management, infrastructure maintenance, fiscal responsibility and conflict resolution. This, in turn, requires a legal framework that transfers the responsibility for the irrigation and drainage networks from a centralised bureaucracy to community WUAs. The WUAs would be allowed to function and gain experience in a supportive environment facilitated by the government. In this respect, the installation of early warning systems would prevent the flood disasters we have been facing recently. There has been a lot of focus on promoting drought-resistant and water-efficient crops, but there are several challenges. The biggest one is changing mindsets and adopting new irrigation practices, all of which require the presence of agriculture extension services.

Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA)
A three-tier approach consisting of conservation agriculture, agroforestry, and water-efficient irrigation techniques would help improve the soil’s health, fertility and water retention capabilities, leading to reduced erosion and better resilience against extreme weather events. Although CSA is not as capital-intensive as other initiatives, it does require a change in farming practices and mindsets, as it calls for an integrated approach to managing crops, livestock and forests. This approach leads to enhanced biodiversity as well as a diversified income for farmers.

Role of Extension Services
A number of foreign private companies are currently engaged in providing extension services aimed at securing a reliable harvest to trade with their home countries. These companies provide farmers with precision farming technologies, crop-specific advisories and advice about market-oriented value addition. They also have access to cutting-edge technologies and international best practices. The government of Pakistan provides extension services that, on the other hand, have a long-term and public good orientation and therefore should have a broader agricultural community appeal as they are willing to operate in geographies that are not necessarily commercially viable. These contrasting approaches between foreign private companies and government-provided extension services reflect their divergent priorities and motivations.

Agriculture Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)/Cooperative Farming
Despite mounting disinterest within farming families to pursue this occupation, a white space is emerging, made up of a new breed of ecologically minded entrepreneurs willing to work on a more collaborative basis. In this scenario, large tracts of land are procured and managed as a single administrative unit. The upside of this is improved farmer economics and efficiencies due to larger field operations, bulk procurement of inputs, competitive financing, cooperative mechanisation and better marketing. By collectively negotiating pricing based on aggregated produce, market barriers could be overcome, especially by reducing the dependency on middlemen while facilitating access to higher-value markets. It would also give farmers access to risk mitigation products through takaful or conventional insurance companies. The other advantages of such farming would be collaborative learning in terms of upskilling and productivity-enhancing techniques to address challenges such as climate change and water scarcity. There would also be possibilities for shared infrastructure arrangements by participating in WUAs, as well as by sharing processing facilities, while extension support services would be available at a better cost.

Women’s Agricultural Groups (WAGs)
These are based on geographical proximity, where women can come together to exchange information and address common issues related to farming, livestock and agribusiness. Investments could be made in creating awareness and capacity-building for sustainable farming and providing learning about finances, market linkages and farming operational skills. WAGs can eventually morph into a women-led version of farmers’ cooperatives.

Framework of Rural Dispute Resolution (FRDR)
Dispute resolution is an important aspect of improving the quality of delivery. This involves creating spaces for amicable community-inclusive dispute resolutions on matters such as land tenancy, partnership disputes, compulsory purchase compensation, or general contractual noncompliance, to name a few. Community involvement has proven far more effective than traditional methods. This framework should leverage established local customs and tribal knowledge, thereby providing a version of justice already known to the local community. By giving space to grievances and understanding, reconciling and ultimately resolving them, a more cohesive and resilient agricultural community can emerge, contributing to the well-being of farming communities and agriculture as a whole.

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