Corporatisation seems ideal to promote mono-cultural production of cash crops for export, and to provide incentives for cultivating genetically modified crops. Experience from around the developing world shows that agricultural corporatisation increases single commodity harvests, but this often happens at the cost of food security and loss of agricultural bio-diversity
Pakistan is still an agrarian country, with a majority of its workforce directly or indirectly involved in agricultural production. Yet we remain a net food importing country, where almost a quarter of the population is now underfed. This is indeed a tragedy given that at the time of independence, Pakistan inherited a major portion of united Punjab, which used to provide food to the whole of Hindustan.
Flawed policy making, which failed to address the skewed land ownership and boost sustainable development in the agricultural sector, has led our rural economy towards low productivity and ecological disaster.
With the stated aim of overcoming this problem of agricultural non-productivity, our policy makers have been promoting the concept of corporate farming. The advocates of corporate farming cite the need to check the increasing fragmentation of agricultural lands into economically unviable sizes, and they point to the accompanying inability of resource-constrained small farmers to adapt new technologies required to get optimum yield.
While other remedies can be proposed to address these problems, our decision makers have found it easier to try to corporatise the agricultural sector under the rubric of the international trade liberalisation regime. Corporatisation is being encouraged in diverse agricultural activities such as food and livestock production, processing, packaging, and marketing.
Moreover, there is no ceiling placed on the size of corporate farms. As agriculture has been declared an industry, this enables access to more credit facilities from banks and other financial institutions, which can now earmark separate credit shares for Corporate Agriculture Farming (CAF). In a bid to attract investment in the sector, it has been decided that no duties be placed on importing expensive equipment for intensive farming. A hundred percent foreign equity is allowed, and there is no bar on remittance of capital, profits, and dividends. There are also no restrictions placed on allowing international agribusiness corporations to buy out or place under contract small farmers.
Such measures fit in well with current plans to lease out vast tracts of farm land to Gulf-based multinationals, seeking to grow water intensive food crops in other developing countries that seem desperate for cash. Corporatisation has paved the way for wealthy landlords to form corporations as well, so it is no wonder that major landed politicians have favoured introduction of such a policy.
Corporatisation seems ideal to promote mono-cultural production of cash crops for export, and to provide incentives for cultivating genetically modified crops. Experience from around the developing world shows that agricultural corporatisation increases single commodity harvests, but this often happens at the cost of food security and loss of agricultural bio-diversity.
Despite these precedents however, no precautionary measures are being introduced to check profit-driven agribusiness international companies from increasingly using Pakistan as a base for exporting cash crops, or to prevent replacement of staple cereal production with cash crops.
Perhaps the advanced state of decay of agricultural infrastructure and the generic perception of Pakistan being an unstable country has compelled the policy makers to offer such lucrative terms to entice investment into the agricultural sector. At least major agribusinesses operating in Pakistan seem pleased and they have been welcoming government moves to allow corporate farming, which in turn enables their modified seed marketing businesses to make bigger profits.
Emphasis on the need to encourage corporate farming has yet to pay attention to the imperative of meeting Pakistan’s international commitments to halve hunger by year 2015. How can we become a food sovereign state when decisions of what to grow, where to grow, and how much to grow are increasingly taken by corporations?
Our government has repeatedly claimed that it will undertake massive redistribution of state-owned lands to ensure a major impact on poverty reduction efforts in rural Pakistan. The distribution of millions of acres of available land has been mentioned in policy documents like the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, alongside the need to fully support the provision of infrastructure and all other possible inputs to small farmers across the country. However, these efforts seem to have been subverted by the imperative to utilise corporatisation to resolve our agricultural woes.
While we cannot stop the process of globalisation, this does not mean that the state should forget its need to protect vital interests such as food security. Instead of ceding complete control of agriculture to profit-making corporations, the government may consider means to simultaneously ensure means to encourage sustainable agricultural development, and to protect the interests of poor farmers. This can still be done by a variety of means. For instance, it would not be unreasonable for the government to think about introducing regulations that restrict the margins of agribusinesses. Guidelines can be developed to enable title owners of agricultural land, as well as its tillers, to become shareholders in agribusiness concerns so that they are paid dividends earned in lieu of working on the land.
Corporations can also be encouraged to invest in better integration of traditional knowledge with research and to help improve farming practices through use of appropriate technology without further loss of productive land.
Since much of the limited groundwater, if applied through conventional methods will be wasted through percolation in sandy soils in particular, drip irrigation has great potential for growing salt tolerant crops like fruits, vegetables, forest trees, even in sandy deserts. The UAE, the US, Australia and China have developed quite an expertise in such techniques. Our government may specifically ask relevant companies from these countries to invest in these technologies to promote agriculture in our sandy deserts of Thal, Cholistan, Thar, Chaghai, and in the desert tracts of southern NWFP. Similarly, high mountain irrigation technologies have great potential of bringing a large cultivable area along the high banks of streams and rivers in the mountainous areas of the northern parts of the country.
In the absence of such parallel initiatives, it is no wonder that agricultural experts, civil society activists and peasants have been expressing serious reservations about the corporatisation of agriculture in Pakistan.
The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Article originally published in Daily Times, reproduced by permission of DT.