Pakistan’s Agricultural Sector: Challenges and Response (Part 1)

Shahid H. Raja
8 min readSep 17, 2023

Introduction

Although Pakistan is no longer a predominantly agricultural country, thanks to the rapid strides it has made in its quest for industrial transformation, agriculture still occupies a prominent place in its overall economic structure. Being a pivot around which all other economic activities move, it is a major contributor to the country’s economy in terms of GDP, foreign exchange earnings, employment generation, raw materials for the manufacturing industry (primarily textile), and the most vital national food security.

In fact, Pakistan’s survival and growth are directly dependent on its agriculture due to its socio-political interconnectedness and its economic and financial backward as well as forward linkages. Its performance still dictates all our macro indicators — growth rates of the economy, poverty profile, foreign exchange reserves, inflationary pressures, etc. (Probably that’s why the quartered shield in the centre of Pakistan’s national emblem still shows cotton, wheat, tea and jute, which were the major crops of Pakistan at independence and signify the agricultural base of the economy.)

In this multi-part article, I will be discussing Pakistan’s agriculture sector’s historical evolution, SWOT analysis, and the challenges this sector is facing, and I will sum up with a plan of action for improving its performance.

Pakistan Agriculture: Basic Facts

The total area of Pakistan is approximately 80 million hectares, out of which about 58 million hectares have been surveyed so far by the Geological Survey of Pakistan. According to them, the area under cultivation is 22 million hectares (38%), out of which nearly 19 million hectares is irrigated; the rest are rain-fed (Barani). The area under forest is 4 million hectares (7%) and the balance of the surveyed area of 8 million hectares can be classified as cultivable waste.

The agriculture sector of Pakistan comprises four sectors: livestock, crops, forests, and fisheries. Livestock contributes 56% of the total agriculture production, while the crop sector adds 38%, out of which the contribution of major crops is 25% and minor crops is 13%. Fisheries and forestry contribute 2% each.

Coupled with a suitable climate and the availability of fairly good water resources, agriculture has been a major activity for centuries in this part of the world. Its vast natural resource base and diverse ecological zones help Pakistani farmers produce a large variety of agricultural crops in different seasons all over the country.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Pakistan ranks globally

  1. second in the production of indigenous buffalo meat, buffalo milk, and oilseed
  2. third for chillies and cottonseed
  3. fourth for mango, pulses, goat milk, cotton lint, goat meat, roots, and tubers
  4. fifth for the production of Chickpeas and spices
  5. sixth for wheat, sugarcane, apricots, spinach, okra, and dates
  6. seventh for cauliflowers and broccoli
  7. eighth for tangerines, mandarins, fresh tropical fruits, tobacco, and onions
  8. eleventh in pistachios, oranges, and wools
  9. thirteenth for rice
  10. fourteenth in bird eggs and peas

Historical Evolution

Pakistan came into existence as a result of the dissolution of the British Indian Empire, inheriting a predominantly agrarian economy with agriculture contributing more than 60% of its GDP, employing nearly 80% of its labour force, and earning substantial foreign exchange through exports of its primary goods. Roughly 80% of the population was dependent, directly or indirectly, on agriculture for their survival.

The average growth rate of agriculture during the last 75 years has been around 3%, with fairly large variations from year to year, mainly caused by weather, water availability, and the cost of production. Major sources of growth during the six decades after independence have been different in different decades. A brief review of the conditions of Pakistani agriculture and the sources of growth in different eras will be in order

1950s-Pre Green Revolution Era

When Pakistan came into existence, it was an underdeveloped country in the classic sense. Its agriculture was a subsistence agriculture that was earning less than its potential surplus due to inherent social, economic, and political constraints. It was still at a primitive stage, and capitalist development had not made any inroads. Dominated by big land owners who owned large tracts of land where they did not have much incentive to increase productivity to earn more income; the vast majority of tenants cultivating these lands on behalf of the landlords did not have sufficient physical and financial means to raise productivity. It was, in essence, a subsistence agricultural rural economy, with an extremely poor level of rudimentary infrastructure.

During the first decade of independence, Pakistan’s agriculture showed good progress in terms of increased production of major crops. However, the main driver of growth was an increase in the cultivated area, which increased from 11.6 m ha in 1948 to 15.3 m ha by 1960. The development of land (particularly in the new barrage areas) had a huge impact on production.

On the other hand, its productivity, the second driver of increased production, remained sluggish during this period due to the overall anti-agriculture policy bias of the ruling elites, who gave maximum concessions to the trading and commercial classes. Agriculture did not receive the attention it deserved, and its performance remained below its potential due to its low technological base, adverse agricultural terms of trade, patterns of landholding, and tenurial relations. Consequently, Pakistan had to import wheat in the first decade of its existence as a result of this neglect of agriculture.

1960s-Green Revolution Era

Realizing the crucial role of agriculture as a base for rapid industrial development and learning lessons from the past neglect of agriculture, which had led to widespread food shortages in the country during the 1950s, the Ayub regime enacted far-reaching reforms in the agriculture sector to increase its productivity. It was given a boost by carrying out the requisite land reforms, institutional strengthening, and application of science and technology. Putting a ceiling on maximum land holding, restricting alienation of land beyond an economic unit of 12.5 acres, and giving greater legal protection to tenants against their arbitrary evictions by the landlords resulted in improved agricultural production.

However, his biggest contribution was accelerating the speed of the Green Revolution, which had started in the last part of the first decade. With the introduction of science and technology in all agricultural activities, the emphasis shifted towards vertical expansion—an increase in yields through genetic breakthroughs in major crops (wheat, rice, and cotton). The Indus Basin Water Treaty resulted in the expansion of irrigation networks and greater water storage capability, making it possible to bring huge areas under cultivation. The newly created Agricultural Development Bank of Pakistan extended generous loans to rich and middle-class farmers for the purchase of agricultural inputs and machinery and for the installation of tube wells.

All these measures resulted in impressive growth rates of agriculture, which grew at 3.8% per year with the production of all crops growing at around 4.8% per year

1970s-Green Revolution 2

In the 1970s, the Green Revolution entered its second phase when small farmers also started adopting new agricultural practices. Varieties that evolved during the 1960s were widely cultivated by farmers using chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. Better availability of water, greater access to subsidized electricity, and credit on a large scale made it possible for them to increase their production. Land reforms in two stages within five years improved tenurial relations in favour of small tenants. Three rural reconstruction programs during this period also helped create more rural employment, facilitate the flow of farm inputs and outputs, and provide agricultural services in small towns closer to farmers’ doorsteps.

1980s-Rural Transformation

Two successive food crises forced policymakers to formulate a comprehensive food security policy and realize rural transformation as a necessary precondition for economic growth. The induction of local bodies resulted in the improvement of rural infrastructure. Foreign remittances resulted in rural private construction, rationalization of the cost of land and realignment of rural political dynamics

1990s-Post Green Revolution Consolidation

Better crop management and extension services played a major role in increasing agricultural production. Input use efficiency and greater integration with world markets are the prime reasons for boosting growth in the agriculture sector. Fertilizer use, adoption of HYVs and the use of mechanical farm power exhibited rising trends

2000/10s-Gene Revolution

While the first part of the 2000s was a disaster for the farmers of the country, the food crises of 2007 reemphasized the crucial importance of agriculture as an engine of growth, a price stabilizer, and a vehicle for poverty alleviation. Coming into power a rural-friendly regime of the Pakistan People’s Party in 2008 was a game changer for the agriculture sector of Pakistan. Generous price support programmes for agricultural outputs and the rationalization of input prices resulted in better terms of trade for the agricultural sector after many decades.

The introduction of Biotechnology by the private sector started the Gene Revolution in the country. Commercial farming was started on a large scale by enterprising farmers and business houses, which boosted tunnel farming and farm mechanization. Environmental considerations, the looming threat of climate change and water scarcity have forced policymakers to go for input use efficiency and resource management

Where We Stand Now: Historical Comparison

If compared historically, Pakistan’s agriculture sector has not done as badly as generally alleged, despite the fact that it did not get the attention it deserved. The following chart will reveal that almost all crops have improved their yields 3–4 times during the last 60 years:

Where we stand: Historical Date

Coupled with the increase in the area under cultivation of different crops, the total production of major crops has shown impressive results.

  1. Production of wheat has increased from 4 Million Metric Tons (MMT) in 1950 to 25 MMT in 2015, while that of
  2. Rice production has increased from less than 1 MMT to 2 MMT in the 1960s to more than 7 MMT in the same period.
  3. The production of maize has improved from 0.5 MMT in the 1950s to 1 MMT in the 1960s to 4 MMT in 2022.
  4. Cotton production has shown even more impressive results—0.8 MMT in the 1950s, 2 MMT in the 1960s, and 12.9 MMT in 2022.
  5. The production of sugarcane — from 6 MMT in the 1950s to more than 55 MMT during the next 65 years.

Where we stand now: Global Comparison

More interesting than the historical comparison is the global comparison: Pakistan compares favourably with its arch-rival, India, in terms of yield, despite the fact that Indian agriculture is heavily subsidized while agriculture in Pakistan gets stepmotherly treatment with a few exceptions here and there:

  1. Wheat: Both compete neck-and-neck at 28 maunds (40 kg) per acre, equal to the global average of 29 maunds per acre
  2. Cotton: Pakistan, by producing 20 maunds per acre, outperforms India with an average yield of 15 maunds per acre
  3. Rice: Again, neck and neck at 33 maunds per acre in both countries
  4. Maize: Pakistan produces 33 maunds of maize on each acre, India 22
  5. Sugarcane: Here, India (734 maunds per acre) outperforms Pakistan (516 maunds per acre)

In my next article, I will be discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Pakistan’s agriculture sector, as well as the threats it is likely to face in the short to long term and the opportunities available.

From the book “Pakistan Affairs: 25 Essays”, published by Amazon and available at

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