Blending for food security
The present wheat crisis, combined with a significant increase in twin deficits (fiscal and current account), indicates that the measures taken by past governments have proved inadequate to provide a sustainable solution to the food security issue currently being faced by Pakistan.
Until now, our governments have relied on measures like subsidising the agricultural sector at various levels to encourage wheat production, offering social safety net programmes to protect the consumption of the poor, and importing wheat to augment its availability in domestic markets.
Across the world, wheat, rice, and maise (corn) are the three most consumed cereals as human food. They account for 94 per cent of all cereal consumption and supply over 50pc of the world’s calorie intake. Nevertheless, in Pakistan, wheat is the largest staple food, providing 72pc of Pakistan’s daily caloric needs, with annual consumption standing at 124 kg per person, one of the highest in the world.
The experience of other countries indicates that as per capita income grows, people tend to diversify their diets and consume more high-value foods such as meat and dairy products. Such a change in consumption behaviour leads to a decline in the consumption of wheat, rice, and maize.
Mixing 10pc maize flour with wheat flour would lower prices and decrease the balance of payment deficit
Unfortunately, Pakistan has not yet experienced much of this transition, given its weak economic growth over the last few decades, and therefore our extreme dependency on wheat is still too strong.
On the other hand, it seems that Pakistan will not be able to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat in the coming years, despite efforts, as expanding the wheat area is no longer an option due to rapid changes in cropping practices, water scarcity, and top it off, the rapid growth of housing colonies that are eating up fertile agricultural land.
As a result, Pakistan relies on enhancing crop yields as the only viable alternative to increase wheat production to feed its ever-growing population. However, lack of investment in the sector and climate change are the real challenges to achieving this goal.
Historically, Pakistan’s food security has been heavily dependent upon wheat and every time there is a shortage of it, the food crisis deepens. To address the food security challenge, one possible strategic option is to diversify people’s diet in such a way that wheat consumption could partly be replaced by rice, maize, or some other affordable minor staple crops (barley, millet, sorghum).
To this end, blending just 10pc maize flour with wheat flour seems to be a viable option, considering maize’s vast crop area in Pakistan, large surplus production, and its low national and international prices vis-à-vis wheat. However, there are some debatable issues related to its taste, nutritional values, and consumers’ personal choices.
Maize is cultivated in a wide array of agro-ecologies and soil types and it matures in 90 to 120 days. In 2020–21, Pakistan produced 27.46 million tonnes of wheat from 9.17m hectares, with a 3 tonnes/hectare yield, whereas maize production stood at 8.94m tonnes from 1.418m hectares, with an average yield of 6.3 tons/hectare.
Maize’s higher yield in comparison to other cereals makes it an attractive option for countries challenged by land scarcity and high population pressure.
Without governmental intervention and subsidy, maize production has almost doubled from 4.92 to 8.94m tonnes in just five years (2016–2021), and production in FY22 stood at 10.635m tonnes which is likely to increase up to 13m tonnes in the next few years.
Exportable surpluses of maize are available, which will further increase in future. Already, Pakistan has been exporting maize in significant quantities. On the contrary, Pakistan has been importing around 2.5m tonnes of wheat annually for the last few years — about 10pc of the country’s total wheat requirement.
By blending just 10pc maize with wheat, such wheat imports can be reduced significantly, thereby improving the balance of payment.
Maize has the additional advantage of being priced lower than wheat in both national and international markets. As of the last week of March 2023, wheat is priced 50pc higher than maize in local markets. Hence, blending maize with wheat will not only improve the supply of wheat flour but will also lead to a reduction in flour prices.
There are several countries across the world that have strong maize-based dietary traditions, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and a few Asian countries, where maize is consumed as a major cereal (staple food). In Pakistan, maize is also used for human consumption in substantial quantities in several geographic pockets.
From a nutritional point of view, maize contains 72pc starch, 4pc fat, 2.7pc fibre, 66pc carbohydrate, 1.5pc minerals (calcium, phosphorous, iron), vitamins (A, B, E) and supplies dietary energy density of 365 calories/100 gram which is equivalent to 23m calories per hectare in Pakistan, fairly high vis-à-vis wheat (10.5m).
Maize contains 10pc protein, lower than wheat (13%) but higher than rice (8pc). Maize provides many essential minerals and B vitamins but lacks vitamin B12 and C and, in general, also lacks calcium and iron. Therefore, in several countries, fortified maize flour and cornmeal are used to enhance the intake of iron and micronutrients.
But it applies equally to wheat flour, as Pakistan initiated a “wheat flour fortification program” in 2016. It is important to note that biofortified (nutritionally enhanced) varieties like “Quality Protein Maize”, which have a greater value of major and micro nutrients, have been developed using advanced biotechnology techniques. These varieties are currently grown on around 9m acres worldwide.
To conclude, Pakistan has historically over-emphasised wheat production and therefore, it presently occupies around 40pc of Pakistan’s total cultivated land. Consequently, we are left with inadequate land for oilseed crops, which is typically grown alongside wheat.
As a result, Pakistan has to import edible oil/oilseed worth billions of dollars every year. The situation necessitates crop switching as a strategy to enhance productivity in the agriculture sector, with a priority on crops that offer better yields and higher value.
Khalid Wattoo is a farmer and a development professional Rahema Hasan is a political economist and graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science