Technology gap in agriculture | Political Economy

Technology gap in agriculture

the country’s agricultural productivity is stagnant due to lack of optimal technology application. Most commentators tend to blame academia and the research community for this. Admittedly, there are some research gaps but even more
there is clearly a lack of skills, innovation and acceptance.

There are many ways to look at the challenge: land and water development; farm machinery and precision; seeds and agrochemicals; farm services and credit; processing and value addition; markets and agribusiness; rural-urban transition; and public policy and governance etc.

Machine operations require economies of scale, which are often beyond the means of most small farmers. The absorption of scale-neutral technology (seed, fertilizer, animal feed, chemicals) had a significant impact on crop and livestock production and productivity. However, there is much more to be desired than is being done.

We have failed to keep up with the evolving requests. Seed replacement for wheat is very slow – about 20 percent per year; it should be at least 50 percent. Balanced use of fertilizers is completely lacking. Nitrogen is the most widely used fertilizer but our soils are deficient in several nutrients. The application of farm chemicals is often imprecise and the timing of operations is not properly considered.

The link between land distribution and technological transformation in the canal colonies (1880s onwards) makes for an interesting study. The land development occurred following gravity driven irrigation water flows from rivers. Back then, the relationship between average land holding and water allocation (controlled supply/ music band / minutes per acre time slot distribution) effective for 60 percent cropping intensity. Now, with land fragmentation over nearly six generations and crop intensity of 200 percent, the irrigation system is struggling to be optimal. The water deficit is being met through excessive and expensive groundwater pumping.

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Switching to high efficiency irrigation requires energy, pipes and on-farm water storage structures, which the majority of farmers do not have. A complete overhaul of the system is needed to convert canal irrigation supply to demand-based water delivery. With increasing urbanization, there will soon be more competition for water allocation and pricing mechanisms that disadvantage agriculture.

Farm practices must be water efficient to support the costs of water volumes and delivery systems. The current investment in IAO needs to be revisited to be consistent with the underlying facts instead of allowing elite capture.

Animal draft power has almost disappeared and tractors are the standard farm power. The tractors currently account for almost half of the horse power required. The tractors currently have very few implements and are insufficient to meet the modern mechanization requirements (ploughing, harrowing, planting, spreading, spraying, harvesting, drying, grading, transport).

The future lies with the next generation of mechanization: the use of agricultural precision equipment and the application of data science and drones. There is a strong case for providing comprehensive rental services in place of the current tractor.

High efficiency irrigation requires energy, pipes and water storage structures on the farm, of which there are few. A complete overhaul of the system is needed to convert canal supply irrigation to demand-based water delivery.

Sir William Roberts, principal of the Punjab Agricultural College and Research Institute, Lyallpur (Faisalabad) wrote a paper in 1925 to highlight the need to create a seed industry in the country, long before the Green Revolution of the 1960s. By then the use of hybrid maize seed was already in practice elsewhere. He abandoned academics and created the Roberts Seed and Ginning business in Khanewal and Rahim Yar Khan. The seed industry was nationalized and converted into the Punjab Seed Corporation in the mid-1970s.

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A similar seed corporation was established in Sindh. These seed corporations are now almost irrelevant. There are almost 1,000 private seed companies. However, we are failing the system when it comes to the supply of quality seeds.

The introduction of hybrid seeds by multinational companies led to major advances in corn production. There are isolated examples of other crops, including hybrid rice and vegetables. In most cases, farmers continue to use indigenous seeds that do not even fit the definition of seed. The corn experience shows that once farmers see the advantage of buying better seeds, which leads to the implementation of the rest of the technology, i.e. appropriate seeding practices, use of fertilizers and chemicals.

The Seed Act 1976 was promulgated to regulate the supply of quality seeds. Back then the GM crops didn’t exist. The Seed Act was amended in 2015 to accommodate GM crops and to provide for the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act 2016 to encourage innovation (intellectual property).

There are three segments to create an impact with quality seeds in crop productivity, ie. i.e genetics/science, regulation and propagation and delivery to the farmer. Some of the science is up to date, except that there is a wide range of breeding programs in the public sector with overlapping roles that could be integrated through better coordination. The regulation has its limits, especially the post-18th Amendment of a limited range of federal law. Attention must be paid to the harmonization of federal and provincial roles to make the seed industry successful. The most disturbing part is the ongoing business of propagation and delivery of counterfeit seeds.

In the developed world, government acts as a distant watchdog and there are societies that work (like jealously) to achieve quality assurance. Seed supervision is an essential aspect of quality assurance. The International Seed Testing Society (ISTA) provides a non-governmental quality assurance platform for seed societies and companies around the globe. There is only one ISTA laboratory in Pakistan located on the premises of the Federal Seed Registration and Certification Department. One more is being contemplated at Faisalabad.

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Pakistan is also lagging behind in the adoption of the Cartagena Protocol which provides a global standardized framework for the safe use of GM crops. There is a steady stream of native GM traits. To harness the potential of these technological gains, we must learn from global best practices.

There is a network of provincial soil and water testing laboratories. The major fertilizer manufacturers also offer soil and water testing facilities. Still, the application of fertilizer is around urea and DAP. There is very limited application of potash and micronutrients which are seriously deficient in our soils.

Excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers falls into the category of ‘diminishing returns’ and environmental degradation. The time is ripe to introduce survey tools using image processing for precise applications. There is a need for strict control over the application of agro-chemicals prescribed and distributed by mushroom dealerships.

In short, we have the information and the recipes, but we don’t have proper packaging. Awareness and capacity building is an ongoing process for assimilation. One option would be the default corporatization of agricultural supplies and services. That should be attractive to the banks and lenders who are otherwise tired of lending to the farmers who do not have absorptive capacity. There is also a good case for rural entrepreneurship and employment generation.

The writer is the vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad


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