ISLAMABAD (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For the first time in years, Pakistani farmer Zulfiqar Ali cannot afford to sow winter wheat. Damage to his standing rice crop from heavy monsoon rains has left him penniless.
“My rice crop on 18 hectares was flattened by lashing rains in July,” said Ali, standing next to his paddy field in Sialkot district, some 190 km (120 miles) from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. “I have already landed in a debt trap, and my children have been hungry for many days.”
Although Pakistan produces enough rice to meet both its domestic and export needs, the country’s longer-term food security is at risk, as demand for the staple crop continues to grow and increasingly extreme weather threatens yields.
Experts say the solution lies in adopting flood-resilient and high-yielding rice varieties, but the government is doing too little to promote these, leaving farmers like Ali exposed to economic ruin.
Ali is now worried about how he will clear the loan of 240,000 Pakistani rupees (around $2,300) he borrowed from a moneylender earlier in the year to buy his rice seed.
Some 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) are brought under paddy in Sialkot every year in June or July. The crop is harvested in September and October, and the land is then prepared for planting wheat in November.
Farmers typically use earnings from selling their rice harvest to meet household expenditures, clear their debts and sow the next crop.
But 85 percent of rice fields in Sialkot were hit by devastating rains and floods in 2013, according to Ibrahim Mughal, chairman of Agri Forum Pakistan, a national farmers’ association based in Lahore.
“Although Pakistan (has) managed to bring more area under rice, above-normal rains and subsequent riverine flooding in Punjab and Sindh – where over 70 percent of the country’s rice is produced – have dashed hopes for bumper rice production,” he said.
RICE FORECAST DOWNGRADED
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) downgraded its forecast for Pakistan’s rice production in its November 2013 Rice Market Monitor because of the past year’s torrential rains and flooding.
In the financial year 2013-14, the FAO expects Pakistan to produce around 8.7 million tonnes of paddy - 0.6 million tonnes less than the target of 9.3 million tonnes set by the federal government.
Rice is sown on 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land in Pakistan. More than 1.6 million hectares have been affected by rain and floods, according to officials in the Food Security and Research Ministry.
The FAO forecasts that Pakistan will have 2.9 million tonnes of rice available for export in 2014, 3 percent less than in 2013.
However, Raja Ali Khan Baloch, parliamentary secretary at the Food Security and Research Ministry, argues that the country has no shortage of rice.
“Despite the crop losses, adequate rice will still be available for achieving export targets and domestic consumption,” he said.
Nonetheless Baloch cautioned that the country would suffer on both fronts if extreme weather events continue and if flood-resilient varieties of rice are not introduced among farmers.
A particular concern is that demand for rice in Pakistan is growing along with the country’s population, currently 180 million.
According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, domestic rice consumption grew to 3 million tonnes in 2013 from 2.4 million tonnes in 2011, a 25 percent increase.
Commodity dealers say reports of flood-related damage to rice crops have hiked prices on the wholesale and retail markets.
“Last year we sold the finest quality of aromatic rice for 10,000 rupees ($94) per 100 kg. But now it sells for above 14,500 rupees ($136) per 100 kg,” said Sheraz Ahmad, a rice exporter and chief executive of MS Enterprises in Karachi.
“Any downward change in rice production means escalation in hunger and malnutrition,” warned Abid Suleri, a food security expert and executive director of the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute.
The possibility of a decline in production has wider economic consequences too. Pakistan exports rice to countries in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. After cotton, rice is the country’s biggest source of foreign exchange, accounting for over 40 percent and worth $2 billion annually, according to the State Bank of Pakistan.
Pervaiz Amir, an agricultural scientist and former member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change, said flood-resilient crop varieties are the way forward to avoid - or at least reduce - damage to crops that are critical to food security.
Sensitising farmers about the advantages of these varieties is important to increase demand for them, he said.
But Pakistan’s agricultural researchers have failed on this count, Agri Forum’s Mughal said.
“Farmers have been left with no option but to sow old rice varieties that are not flood-resistant and yield less than 485 kg rice per hectare, as compared to improved flood-resistant varieties sown in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Taiwan that yield 890 to 990 kg per hectare,” he said.
NEW RESEARCH PROJECT
Iftikhar Ahmad, chairman of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, a government-supported agency, said inadequate state funding, bureaucratic bottlenecks and an absence of political will were responsible for the lack of research into flood-tolerant rice varieties.
“We have recently approached the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to help Pakistan introduce flood-tolerant rice. Besides we are pushing the government to play its active part on this count to avoid food insecurity in the country and (losing the) export market to other countries,” Ahmad explained.
Senior officials at the Food Security and Research Ministry said the joint venture with IRRI, funded by a $1 million grant from the Asian Development Bank, began in August last year.
Under the project, led by the Punjab Agriculture Research Board (PARB) in Lahore, IRRI is providing technical assistance to develop rice varieties that can survive floods, droughts and heat waves.
PARB head Mubarak Ali hopes that flood and drought-resistant varieties - which are now in an experimental phase - will be introduced to farmers by the end of this year.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development correspondents based in Islamabad.