Seeds: key to Pakistan's wheat shortage?

By Jia Wei | China Economic Net Jun 5, 2022

If a butterfly flapping its wings can bring a storm across the ocean, then as Ukraine and Russia, known as the breadbaskets of the world, account for nearly 30% of global wheat exports, their conflict has brought immeasurable consequences to the whole world, as wheat prices have risen about 60% this year.

Wheat imports from Ukraine account for nearly 40% of Pakistan's total wheat imports. As the conflict continues, food prices in Pakistan have been rising, with food inflation up 17.25% in May 2022 compared with last year. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif even said, "I will sell my clothes to provide the cheapest wheat flour to the people." The rising wheat prices in Pakistan have eventually created a gap between farmers and consumers.

Normally, when the wheat prices rise, consumers suffer and farmers get benefits. However, under the current situation, it seems that this is a game without a winner.

Where are the farmers' profits going?

Ameer Ali looked at the wheat harvester working on his farm in front of him. Although the purchase price of wheat this year has risen to Rs 2,200 per maund from Rs 1,800 last year, there was not a trace of a smile on his face. "Despite pricier wheat, all kinds of costs are higher. A bag of DAP (diammonium phosphate, a kind of fertilizer) used to cost only Rs 6,000, but now it costs Rs 9,000. Urea price has also gone up from Rs 1,600 to Rs 2,200." Ameer Ali had to be careful with his budget to support his family, "I used two bags of DAP per acre in the past, but now I can only use one and a half bags."

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has also contributed to the rise in fertilizer prices. Fertilizer is produced from natural gas and Russia is the world's largest exporter of nitrogen fertilizer. Since the start of the conflict, the price of natural gas has remained high, and the global prices of phosphate and potash have gone up by about 30%, with the price of nitrogen fertilizer rising by almost half.

Farmers can be indifferent to the faraway conflict, but the immediate increase in various costs is real. Besides fertilizer, there are other costs. A farmer named Farooq Bilal Chishti complained that farmers' wheat seeds have not been renewed for a long time, and wheat experiences severe lodging. "The crops fall on the ground, so they can only be harvested by hand, and this makes them more expensive."

Gulam Yasir, a small landowner who is also engaged in grain trade, did the math. "Farmers spend Rs 12,000 per acre for DAP, Rs 6,000 for urea, over Rs 1,000 for pesticides, Rs 500 for labor, Rs 3,000-4,000 for plowing, Rs 4,000-5,000 for harvesting, and fuel cost for irrigation. In all, the cost per acre is about Rs 30,000."

About 60% of Pakistan's total wheat production is kept on farms for household consumption and seeds, while the government and grain merchants buy the remaining 40%. If the yield is 32 maunds per acre, you can get Rs 28,000 from 40% of the production, barely enough to cover expenses.

During the interview, almost all farmers said that the 32 maunds/acre yield is a baseline, and if you want to be profitable, the acreage has to exceed that, so what about wheat production in Pakistan?

How to break through the yield ceiling?

As the staple food crop in Pakistan, wheat is planted in nearly 40% of the cultivated area in Pakistan and accounts for 70% of the total agricultural production. The history of wheat cultivation in Pakistan can be traced back to 6000 BC, while wheat has been planted in India since 3000 BC. Thus, it can be said that Pakistan is the birthplace of wheat in South Asia.

However, it is embarrassing that Pakistan's wheat yield per hectare does not match its long planting history. Sulf Car Ali, professor at the University of Agriculture, said Pakistan has 9 million hectares of wheat planting area, producing about 26 million tons of wheat, with a yield of about 3 tons per hectare. The yield can also be increased by more than 20% compared to the world average.

Sadly, a heat wave swept through South Asia this summer. Gulam Yasir described the scene as a "silent death", as "the hot wind blew, the wheat spikes were dried and bent, with the stems underneath still green.”

In May, the Pakistan Meteorological Department released a climate report indicating that the intense heat wave can significantly affect wheat growth. Sulf Car Ali expected this year's heat wave to have a 5-10% impact on wheat yield.

Apart from almost annual weather extremes and pests and diseases, traditional farming patterns also constrain wheat yield.

According to traditional farming practices, farmers kept the larger grains of the harvested wheat for next season's seed for thousands of years. Dr. Abdul Rasheed, chief research and development officer of Guard Agri in Pakistan, said that farmers' use of uncertified seeds and irrational use of fertilizers are factors that affect wheat yield. "Our farmers grow their crops in a traditional way and have not adopted any new technology in this field." Prof. Habib Iqbal of University of Agriculture, Peshawar, held that the biggest problem affecting wheat yield is the lack of quality seeds. "Unless we have quality seeds, we can't get good yields."

Besides the quality of seeds, where to plant them is also critical. Of the 9 million hectares of wheat planting area in Pakistan, only 45 percent is fertile land with good irrigation conditions while 55 percent is arid and saline.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast Pakistan's wheat production for 2022/23 at 26.4 million tons, 4% lower than that of last year, due to declining planting area and yield. Pakistan's annual wheat demand is about 30 million tons, with a shortfall of more than 3 million tons. As the current international wheat prices remain high, wheat imports will make Pakistan's already stretched foreign exchange reserves tighter.

There are signs that Pakistan's wheat production is not only related to the farmers' wallets, but also to the revenue of Pakistan.

Wheat variety custom-made for Pakistan

If raising wheat yields is a treasure trove, Pakistani agriculturalists have the key to it. Prof. Muhammad Arif of University of Agriculture, Peshawar, said that the most urgent work of their institute is the research on wheat seed. "We are working with Beijing Engineering Research Center for Hybrid Wheat, and have made great progress. We have studied different types of hybrids that have yielded 25-50% more than our local varieties." The next thing in their consideration was how to handle that key to the farmers.

Dr. Abdul Rasheed conducted research on hybrid rice in Sindh in 2010. In order to promote the experimental results, their team gave hybrid rice seeds to farmers to use for free. "Farmers used 40 kilograms of rice seeds per acre before, and the yield was about 50 maunds. I said if you use our seeds, with only 5 kilograms of seeds per acre, you can get doubled yield. All farmers said this was crazy, but the yield convinced them. Now we are promoting wheat seeds in the same way."

In addition to the lack of acceptance, the high price of new seeds, about Rs 400 per kilogram, unaffordable for ordinary small farmers, impedes promotion in Pakistan. Many farmers said that they have strained to stabilize agricultural production and were unable to upgrade technologies in the aspects of seeds, irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers.

Despite the seemingly high prices of hybrid wheat seeds, farmers need fewer seeds. "Previously they needed to sow sixty kilograms of seeds per acre. Now it is only six kilograms and the rest of the wheat grains can be saved for consumption," said Dr Abdul Rasheed. He is confident that he can change the traditional way of growing wheat in Pakistan. "I think we can bring a revolution in this field."

In the meantime, in order to reduce the burden on farmers, there will be a subsidy of about Rs 200 per kilogram of seeds. "We have started a project with SEED Pakistan, a non-profit organization. We will conduct demonstrations throughout KPK to show farmers how to grow this hybrid seed." Muhammad Arif is sure about this.

In response to the heat wave in Pakistan, hybrid wheat can continue to grow at a high temperature of 40°C. Meanwhile, the best feature of Chinese hybrid wheat seed is that they can be grown on less fertile land, so it is especially suitable for the arid areas of Pakistan. Farmers' irrigation costs can be reduced; moreover, the wheat planting area can be expanded to the saline-alkali land.

The adoption of new seeds will not only change the status quota of Pakistan on wheat import, but will also lead to food security in the surrounding region through international cooperation. Sulf Car Ali has set his eyes on Central Asia. "In Afghanistan and Iran, to our west, there are 8 million hectares of wheat cultivation area, and in Kazakhstan, there are 12 million hectares. We can increase the yield of wheat by 1-2 tons per hectare on these 20-million hectares of land by using the high quality seeds.


The article is translated by Fu Bo.

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