Initiative for doubling sunflower acreage

Post Source: Dawn Economic & Business Review – By Ahmad Fraz Khan
Monday, 28 Dec, 2009

 

Federal Minister for Food and Agriculture Nazar Muhammad Gondal recently visited Lahore to announce a plan for doubling sunflower acreage in Punjab in one year. The plan also envisages fixing support price for the first time in country’s history and promising official intervention if the price comes down below the newly fixed line. Sounds good!

Given the multiplying edible oil import bill, which burgeoned to a staggering figure of $1.5 billion last year, the initiative should be welcomed and government should sustain it with required seriousness. The effort shows that the government is alive to the situation, and intends to contain the bill.

According to the ministerial plan, Punjab will increase its acreage from last year’s 242,000 acres to 480,000 acres this year – almost 100 per cent increase in a year. The increase in Punjab, food basket of the country, would hike the national acreage figure of 930,000 acres last year to 1.25 million acres this year.

But beyond good intentions, agriculture needs meticulous planning and a careful execution before any benefit can be claimed. The planning part is almost missing in the entire federal scheme of things, and it raises more questions then it answers.

For example, who is the owner of the new plan: the federation or the Punjab? The federal government has announced it but the province is not ready to execute it. According to the ministerial announcement, the Punjab – holding the key to success – has to spare good quality additional 250,000 acres land for cultivation. Unfortunately, Punjab was not taken on board before the announcement. The Punjab, thus, does not own the plan.

It does not own the plan because it flies in the face of its peculiar cropping pattern and ground realities. For example, the federal government plan asks Punjab to spare around 400,000 acres for sunflower deep in cotton belt – Multan, Bahawalpur, Lodhran and Vehari districts.

Both sunflower and cotton are deep-rooted and soil-exhaustive crops. They need massive quantity of fertilisation and other nutrients. If one crop succeeds other, the soil may not be able sustain the pattern for long despite multiplying investment on soil fertility.

Another problem is that sunflower crop is a white fly carrier, which would only ensure pest attack on the following cotton crop. This year, the Punjab, and the country, would miss its cotton targets for the fifth consecutive year because of virus attack. Can it risk cultivating a pest-carrier deep in the cotton belt? Of course not!

The sunflower crop also does not make fiscal sense in current scheme of things. Since it is sown in January, it could only replace wheat. It is harvested in May, and could only delay the cotton sowing well in June, making it more vulnerable to virus attack, as shown by the attack pattern this year – the late sown (May-June) cotton crop was almost destroyed by virus. No farmer could risk his sure and healthy income in wheat and risk it unknown sunflower.
Unfortunately, Punjab’s agriculture department, as people say, is only a “big crop branch.” It is designed, maintained and geared only to produce crops like rice, wheat, cane and cotton. It does not have expertise for “off-beat crops,” like sunflower.

It also concentrates on big crop due to its human resource poverty. Some 400-odd agriculture graduates are attending 3.8 million farmers’ families, and one agriculture officer covers some 70 villages – an impossible task. No wonder, it only attends those crops, which are sown and mature due to their own momentum, rather than those that need some additional man-hours for maturity.

The newly-announced support price of Rs1,600 per 40kg hardly adds economic attraction to the sunflower crop. The current international sunflower price ($650 per ton) is attractive enough for farmers, but it loses its lustre when taken in the backdrop of mid-year prices when Malaysian Palm Oil crop draws them down heavily. That is the time when the local sunflower crop hits the market.

Beyond these market realities, the farmers have their own way of calculating sunflower price. They claim it must be double the wheat price, as its production is almost half and it taxes soil so heavily. By that calculation, the sunflower prices comes around Rs2,000 per 40kg.

The Punjab Agriculture Price Committee had recommended a price of Rs1,745 per maund and the federal government must have made its own calculations. And the final price was reduced to Rs1,600 per maund.

Promising to launch Pakistan Agriculture Services and Supplies Corporation (Passco) into procurement hardly inspires confidence in farmers, especially after its second year failure on the rice front.

In a nutshell, the Punjab and farmers need answers of many questions before jumping onto the federal bandwagon for sunflower planning. They are valid question and must be attended to save other crops as well.

There is hardly any denying that the country needs to control its edible oil import bill, but doing so needs realistic planning. There are solutions available, but would only be achieved through integrated planning and execution. The Punjab has a huge barani (rain-fed) belt that can be used for sunflower cultivation.

Another solution could be a high-yielding local seed, which could take production beyond 15 maunds an acre and make market sense for farmers.

For those solutions, the federal government needs to sit with provinces before launching any high-profile schemes. It also needs to understand provincial realities and try to find ways within those realities. Planning from outside neither helps the federation not provinces nor farmers nor agriculture.

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