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  • Writer's pictureDr. Farrukh Chishtie

Sustainable agriculture: A way out of perennial poverty

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Dr. Farrukh Chishtie


Agriculture stands as the cornerstone of Pakistan's economy, serving as the primary source of sustenance for its citizens and supplying essential raw materials to its major industries. However, it must be made sustainable with practices such as agroforestry, and with this can help Pakistan out of its vicious and perennial cycle of poverty.


Agriculture is at the heart of Pakistan’s economy. Yet, despite its critical role, the agricultural sector often finds itself sidelined, with farmers, the very heart of this industry, receiving inadequate recognition and support. This oversight becomes even more concerning in light of the escalating threats posed by climate change.


The persistent struggles faced by Pakistan's farmers are a significant contributor to the country's growing food insecurity concerns. As the impacts of climate change intensify, these challenges are set to amplify. Pakistan's agricultural landscape is dominated by staple crops such as wheat, rice, cotton, maize, and sugarcane. The nation's heavy reliance on these crops underscores the urgency for a well-defined and strategic agricultural policy. While previous governments have made attempts to address this, a comprehensive and forward-thinking approach remains elusive.


As a predominantly agrarian society, Pakistan finds itself at the crossroads of climate change, with its agricultural sector bearing the brunt of the escalating environmental shifts. The intricate relationship between climate change and agriculture in Pakistan is one of profound concern, as it threatens not only the nation's food security but also its economic stability.


To begin with, the changing precipitation patterns have led to either excessive rainfall or prolonged droughts. The former results in devastating floods, washing away fertile topsoil and destroying crops, while the latter leads to water scarcity, making irrigation a challenge. The Indus River Basin, Pakistan's primary source of freshwater, is particularly vulnerable to these changes, directly impacting the water availability for crops.


Temperature fluctuations further exacerbate the situation. Rising temperatures can lead to heat stress in crops, reducing yields and affecting the quality of produce. For instance, wheat and rice, two of Pakistan's staple crops, are sensitive to temperature changes, and even slight deviations can lead to significant yield reductions.


Moreover, the increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, cyclones, and heavy rainfall, can lead to crop failures. These unpredictable events make it challenging for farmers to decide on planting and harvesting times, often resulting in significant economic losses.


Pest and disease dynamics are also influenced by climate change. Warmer temperatures can expand the range and lifespan of many pests and pathogens, leading to more significant crop losses. For a country like Pakistan, where agriculture is already battling various pests like locusts, the changing climate can amplify these challenges.


Lastly, the melting glaciers in the Himalayas, due to rising temperatures, pose a dual threat. Initially, they might lead to an increase in river flow, causing floods, but in the long run, as glaciers recede, they threaten to reduce the perennial nature of Pakistan's rivers.


In terms of human impacts, about half of our population, which is roughly 115 million, are hungry and lack access to healthy food. Crop failure due to low rainfall and deaths of small animals (livestock) has greatly reduced the already marginalized communities’ purchasing power.


Dependent on foreign aid, piled on heavy with debts and crushed to bits by poverty, certainly the vision of creating a nation that will be a haven for Muslims is far from any realization. How will we really free ourselves from the shackles of poverty, foreign dependence and continued misery? It will have to start by fulfilling the basic food demands of our citizens in providing affordable food for all. If not, the violence associated with lack of food and poverty will only increase. To stop this downward spiral, our authorities have to get the basics right, especially with our farmers and agriculture. One way to address these challenges, is for Pakistan to adopt sustainable agricultural practices such as agroforestry.


Agroforestry: A sustainable agricultural practice


With a rapidly growing population, increasing water scarcity, and the looming threats of climate change, sustainable agricultural practices are more crucial than ever. Agroforestry, the integration of trees into farming systems, offers a promising solution to many of these challenges.


Agroforestry is a land-use system that seeks to harness the advantages of both trees and crops or livestock. In contrast, existing monoculture farming leads to clearing of forests, leads to large-scale biodiversity and ecosystem losses, which affect us adversely as well. By integrating these components, farmers can create a more diverse, productive, and sustainable land-use system. There are various models of agroforestry, including:

  • Silvopasture: Integrating trees with pasture and livestock.

  • Alley Cropping: Growing crops between rows of trees.

  • Forest Farming: Cultivating non-timber forest products under the canopy of an established forest.

  • Riparian Buffer Strips: Planting trees along waterways to prevent soil erosion and protect aquatic ecosystems.

Adopting agroforestry will have a beneficial effect on our society. These are:

  • Poverty Alleviation: Modern agroforestry can help provide food to the poor communities, while also help preserve traditional knowledge systems.

  • Community Engagement: Agroforestry projects often involve community participation, leading to shared responsibilities and benefits.

  • Health Benefits: Diverse farms can lead to diverse diets, improving community health.

The economic benefits of agroforestry are:

  • Diversified Income: By cultivating multiple products, farmers can have multiple sources of income, reducing dependency on a single crop.

  • Risk Mitigation: A diverse farm is less susceptible to economic downturns, pests, and diseases.

  • Value-added Products: Some agroforestry systems produce non-timber forest products like honey, mushrooms, and medicinal plants, which can fetch a premium price.

The environmental benefits of agroforestry are nature-conserving. These are:

  • Biodiversity Conservation: Agroforestry systems promote a diverse habitat, attracting a variety of flora and fauna. This diversity can lead to a more resilient ecosystem.

  • Soil Health: Trees and shrubs play a pivotal role in preventing soil erosion, improving soil structure, and enhancing soil fertility through nitrogen fixation.

  • Carbon Sequestration: Trees absorb carbon dioxide, making agroforestry a potent tool against climate change.

  • Water Management: The deep roots of trees enhance water infiltration, reduce surface runoff, and improve groundwater recharge.

All in all, agroforestry is more than just a farming practice; it is a philosophy that recognizes the interdependence of various components of nature. By embracing this holistic approach, we can ensure food security, environmental health, and socio-economic development. As the world grapples with challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss, agroforestry shines as a beacon of hope, promising a sustainable and harmonious coexistence of man and nature.


Agriculture: an underappreciated sector of Pakistan’s economy

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Dr. Farrukh Chishtie


Agriculture is the lifeblood of Pakistan's economy, yet its significance is often overshadowed by other sectors in the eyes of policymakers.


Agriculture, often hailed as the backbone of Pakistan's economy, is the primary source of sustenance for its populace and a significant supplier of raw materials to its major sectors. Yet, its pivotal role is frequently overshadowed in societal priorities.


Discussions in the media about agriculture are typically limited to topics like food shortages, productivity challenges, and export potential. There is a glaring gap in understanding the real issues confronting farmers among thought leaders, media, and intellectuals.


Regrettably, academic research on the challenges faced by farmers is sparse. The few existing farmer associations are predominantly controlled by influential landlords, sidelining the interests of smaller farmers. Media portrayals of these small-scale farmers are often oversimplified, painting them with broad strokes of poverty and subsistence living.


Globally, small farmers face the brunt of sweeping economic shifts. In Pakistan, their situation is exacerbated by their lack of organization, leaving them susceptible to unforgiving market dynamics. They possess minimal bargaining power and often find their interests overlooked in favor of larger market entities.


In Punjab, a "small farmer" typically owns less than 5 acres of land, representing 56% of the farming community but only 16% of the cultivable land. In stark contrast, large-scale farmers, who constitute just 5% of the community, control nearly a third of the land.


The vast disparities in land access perpetually disadvantage small farmers. High investment requirements for cash crops are often out of reach for them, pushing them towards informal lenders known for exploitative practices. This system entraps many in a relentless cycle of debt.


Farmers' choices are further constrained by rising input costs. The soaring prices of seeds, water, fertilizers, and pesticides, combined with the fluctuating costs of machinery and fuel, continually strain their finances.


Market dynamics often work against the farmer's favor. While the government sets minimum prices for certain grains, these often don't account for the farmer's labor costs. Moreover, these prices are frequently undercut by market rates, further disadvantaging the farmer.


The overarching narrative reveals a troubling reality: the very foundation of our economy, agriculture, is faltering, with small farmers bearing the brunt of systemic challenges.


To safeguard our economy and ensure food security, it is imperative to prioritize and support our farmers. Addressing the systemic neglect of our agricultural sector is not just essential for the well-being of our farmers but for the nation's future prosperity.


While there is a push towards modernizing agriculture and maximizing crop production, the focus often leans towards benefiting larger agricultural entities. This approach neglects the small-scale farmers, who should be at the forefront of decision-making in this essential sector.


For many farmers, cultivating primary food crops is not economically viable by modern business standards. Instead, it is the household's food security that keeps them tethered to farming. Livestock, reared by nearly every farming family, often serves as their financial safety net.


Empowering our farmers

The choices farmers make regarding crop cultivation are rarely voluntary. Market demands heavily influence these decisions. For instance, staple crops like wheat and rice dominate the agricultural landscape, catering primarily to the needs of consumers seeking affordable grains, meat, and milk. This system prioritizes consumer affordability over farmer welfare.


In countries like Japan and the US, farmers are revered and supported with substantial subsidies to maintain low consumer food prices. In contrast, Pakistan's farmers face diminishing subsidies, leaving them vulnerable to market fluctuations. Moreover, the benefits intended for them often end up with larger agricultural magnates.


Farmers are hesitant to diversify into cash crops due to market uncertainties, substantial investments, and lack of price guarantees. However, when provided with market assurances, they excel. For example, regions in Punjab witnessed a surge in potato and maize production when multinational companies guaranteed purchases, showcasing that our farmers can overcome technological challenges when given the right opportunities.


Cotton, Pakistan's primary cash crop, is cultivated in South Punjab and Upper Sindh. Yet, the irony lies in the fact that textile units, which could offer value addition, are located far from these cotton-producing regions.


To truly support our farmers, we must rethink our approach to food security. Urban centers, which consume a significant portion of agricultural produce, could explore self-sustaining models, like agroforestry, to alleviate the pressure on rural farmers. This shift would allow farmers to prioritize their own food security and well-being.


Land-use practices also need re-evaluation. Fertile lands near urban centers are often acquired for housing projects, halting agricultural activities. Prioritizing less fertile lands for such developments would preserve our agricultural heritage.


In essence, the path to eradicating poverty and addressing the challenges of climate change lies in empowering our small-scale farmers. They must be recognized not just as contributors but as vital decision-makers in the agricultural process. By redirecting resources and support to these farmers, we can invigorate the rural economy and potentially reverse the trend of rural-to-urban migration. It is high time we invest in the true foundation of our economy: our invaluable farmers.


A broader perspective reveals a pressing need for a collective re-evaluation of food security. Stakeholders, from consumers and civil society to governmental bodies, must collaborate to alleviate the pressures on impoverished farmers. One solution could be urban agroforestry, where food is grown in city backyards, parks, and other available spaces. Cuba's success in this domain, especially in cultivating cash crops within urban areas, serves as a noteworthy example. As urban demands for dairy and grains surge, farmers often find themselves sacrificing their own consumption, jeopardizing their food security.


A notable shift is the declining tradition of offering 'Lassi' in villages, as most milk is now directed to urban locales. Cities like Karachi have demonstrated their capability to self-sustain, particularly in dairy production and distribution. To uplift the farming community, two primary strategies emerge: either compensate them fairly for their produce or provide avenues for diversification.


There is potential in harnessing unused or fallow lands for cultivation through agroforestry and urban forestry, offering farmers expanded opportunities. Techniques like rainwater harvesting can transform rough terrains into fertile grounds, as evidenced by the successes in Haripur and Chakwal. Here, small dams and rainwater storage systems have revitalized the local agricultural economy. Such initiatives warrant replication across the nation.


However, concerns arise as fertile lands near urban hubs are increasingly earmarked for commercial and residential projects. Often, these lands remain undeveloped for extended periods, yet agricultural activities cease immediately upon purchase. Prioritizing less fertile lands for development could preserve our agricultural heritage.


In conclusion, the path to alleviating poverty and countering the challenges of climate change lies in empowering our small-scale farmers. They must be recognized as pivotal decision-makers in the agricultural narrative. Any policy framework should not only address the immediate needs but also acknowledge the farmer's role in the broader economic context. Reinvigorating the rural economy can slow, if not reverse, the migration to urban areas. Investing in the bedrock of our economy, our dedicated farmers, is paramount.

Money does grow on trees!

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Dr. Farrukh Chishtie


Contrary to the common saying, our entire economic framework rests on environmental well-being. For long treated as an “externality,” environmental problems result in costs, breaking down the free market model, eating away our national income and retarding true growth.


While it is often overlooked, the foundation of our economic structure is deeply rooted in environmental health. Historically dismissed as a mere "side effect," environmental challenges have real economic consequences. They disrupt the ideal free-market model, erode our national wealth, and hinder genuine growth. A government that claims to be "for the people" can only uphold its promise when it fully integrates environmental considerations.


Throughout the year, we are bombarded with terms like "pro-poor" during budget announcements and references to the rising GDP thereafter. Amidst this barrage from politicians and economists, we pride ourselves on leading the region in economic "growth." However, the much-debated Gross Domestic Product (GDP) isn't the most accurate gauge of economic health, especially when glaring disparities in wealth and escalating poverty levels are evident. To get a holistic view, GDP must be contextualized within the broader economy. A critical component currently missing is the environmental cost, a factor now recognized in many advanced nations. In Pakistan, this cost is a significant fraction of our GDP. While traditional GDP definitions exclude the degradation of natural resources, a "green GDP" could unveil the hidden barriers to true economic advancement by accounting for these costs.


There is a clear incentive to overlook the economic implications of environmental degradation. Acknowledging them not only dims the shine of our economic achievements but also highlights policy missteps, potentially diminishing political popularity. Large-scale projects have often been detrimental to the environment, exacerbating poverty nationwide. The touted GDP growth in 2005-06, for example, when adjusted for environmental costs, suggests that our economic progress was either stagnant or minimal.


A more realistic "green GDP" reflects the true state of progress and can guide better budgetary decisions to address the looming environmental threats. These threats, if unchecked, could intensify poverty and result in long-term damages, such as land degradation. Large-scale projects might benefit a select few but often spell disaster for the average citizen.


The challenge of poverty alleviation becomes even more daunting when the intrinsic link between the environment and economic well-being is ignored. While official figures peg poverty levels at 29-34%, a recent World Bank report suggests it could be three times as high or more.


The global consensus is clear: our unchecked actions leading to climate change necessitate a shift in mindset and resources to protect our most valuable assets - our natural resources. A WWF study emphasizes the next five years as pivotal for budgetary planning and policymaking to combat climate change.


Our very survival, prosperity, and growth are on the line. The current trajectory is unsustainable and perilous. Our land, water, and air deserve not just budgetary attention but also effective solutions in the environmental sector to halt this dangerous descent.


Rethinking Development

Our financial strategists often seem to be forcing mismatched solutions when embarking on development projects, particularly those purported to aid the underprivileged. The most concerning are large-scale initiatives that compromise or even directly harm the fundamental elements essential for life. From towering skyscrapers to ill-conceived infrastructure projects, our skewed priorities threaten everyone, irrespective of their economic status.


The intricate relationship between air, water, and land is undeniable, especially when discussing pollution or its cascading effects. All three are currently under severe threat, yet there is a glaring absence of significant initiatives to counter this reckless trajectory. Clean air, uncontaminated food, and pure water are becoming rarities.


Preserving Our True Wealth

The looming threats of deforestation and subsequent desertification are undeniable. To counteract this rapid degradation, which threatens the foundation of our agriculture-centric economy, the government must invest in conservation efforts. With forest coverage below 5%, investing in this sector can rejuvenate both our terrestrial and marine ecosystems.


Agriculture remains a cornerstone of our economic structure. It is not just an economic pillar but also a cultural and societal anchor. Despite its significance, accounting for almost a fifth of our economic growth, we have witnessed a decline in its contribution. How did we regress so dramatically over the decades?


Human-induced factors like population growth, overgrazing, and deforestation are pressing environmental concerns that demand budgetary attention. While we have historically opted for quick fixes, the broader environmental sector remains underfunded and overlooked. Misguided "development" initiatives, are eroding our natural resource base.


Consequently, vast swathes of our country face severe threats like topsoil erosion, waterlogging, and salinity, leading to desertification and loss of fertile lands.


Facing the Climate Challenge

The adverse effects of climate change, from droughts and floods to intensified natural disasters, are becoming our new reality. The devastation caused by events like the Indian Ocean tsunami and the October 8th, 2005 earthquake underscore the importance of environmental conservation. The government's tree plantation initiatives, while commendable, need to be sustainable and focused on increasing forest cover.


Agroforestry, awareness campaigns, and the promotion of indigenous species are essential components of a holistic environmental strategy. Institutions like the National Agricultural Research Center (NARC) should be empowered to lead research and conservation efforts.


A Call for Grounded Investments

Understanding the economic value of our lands and the services they provide is crucial. Experts should guide decisions to ensure that vital areas, like coastlines and watersheds, are preserved.


Addressing poverty requires a genuine commitment to conserving our natural resources. Our official economic plans, policies and budget should echo this sentiment, emphasizing the need to protect and nurture our people and environment from the grassroots level.

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