Hybrid wheat seeds to tackle shortage

Despite the seemingly high prices of hybrid wheat seeds, farmers need fewer seeds. Previously they needed to sow 60 kilogrammes of seeds per acre.

Wheat imports from Ukraine account for nearly 40% of Pakistan’s total wheat imports. As the conflict continues, food prices in Pakistan have been rising, with food inflation up 17.25% in May 2022 compared with last year.

The rising wheat prices in Pakistan have eventually created a gap between farmers and consumers.

Normally, when the wheat prices rise, consumers suffer and farmers get benefits. However, under the current situation, it seems that this is a game without a winner.

Ameer Ali looked at the wheat harvester working on his farm. Although the purchase price of wheat this year has risen to Rs2,200 per maund from Rs1,800 last year, there was not a trace of a smile on his face.

“Despite pricier wheat, all kinds of costs are higher. A bag of DAP (diammonium phosphate, a kind of fertiliser) used to cost only Rs6,000, but now it costs Rs9,000. Urea price has also gone up from Rs1,600 to Rs2,200.”

Ameer Ali had to be careful with his budget to support his family. “I used two bags of DAP per acre in the past, but now I can only use one and a half bags.”

In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has also contributed to the rise in fertiliser prices.

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Fertiliser is produced from natural gas and Russia is the world’s largest exporter of nitrogen fertiliser. Since the start of the conflict, the price of natural gas has remained high, and the global prices of phosphate and potash have gone up by about 30%, with the price of nitrogen fertiliser rising by almost half.

Farmers can be indifferent to the faraway conflict, but the immediate increase in various costs is real.

Besides fertiliser, there are other costs. A farmer named Farooq Bilal Chishti complained that farmers’ wheat seeds have not been renewed for a long time, and wheat experiences severe lodging.

“The crops fall on the ground, so they can only be harvested by hand, and this makes them more expensive.”

Gulam Yasir, a small landowner who is also engaged in grain trade, did the math. “Farmers spend Rs12,000 per acre for DAP, Rs6,000 for urea, over Rs1,000 for pesticides, Rs500 for labour, Rs3,000-4,000 for plowing, Rs4,000-5,000 for harvesting, and fuel cost for irrigation. In all, the cost per acre is about Rs30,000.”

About 60% of Pakistan’s total wheat production is kept on farms for household consumption and seeds, while the government and grain merchants buy the remaining 40%.

If the yield is 32 maunds per acre, you can get Rs28,000 from 40% of the production, barely enough to cover expenses.

During the interview, almost all farmers said that the 32 maunds per acre yield is a baseline, and “if you want to be profitable, the acreage has to exceed that, so what about wheat production in Pakistan?”

As the staple food crop in Pakistan, wheat is planted in nearly 40% of the cultivated area in Pakistan and accounts for 70% of the total agricultural production.

However, it is embarrassing that Pakistan’s wheat yield per hectare does not match its long planting history.

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Zulfiqar Ali, a professor at the University of Agriculture, said Pakistan has 9 million hectares of wheat planting area, producing about 26 million tons of wheat, with a yield of about 3 tons per hectare. The yield can also be increased by more than 20% compared to the world average.

Sadly, a heat wave swept through South Asia this summer. Gulam Yasir described the scene as a “silent death”, as “the hot wind blew, the wheat spikes were dried and bent, with the stems underneath still green.”

Dr Abdul Rasheed, chief research and development officer of Guard Agri in Pakistan, said that farmers’ use of uncertified seeds and irrational use of fertilisers are factors that affect wheat yield.

“Our farmers grow their crops in a traditional way and have not adopted any new technology in this field.”

Professor Habib Iqbal of University of Agriculture, Peshawar, held that the biggest problem affecting wheat yield is the lack of quality seeds. “Unless we have quality seeds, we can’t get good yields.”

Custom-made wheat variety

If raising wheat yields is a treasure trove, Pakistani agriculturalists have the key to it. Professor Muhammad Arif of University of Agriculture, Peshawar, said that the most urgent work of their institute is the research on wheat seed.

“We are working with Beijing Engineering Research Centre for Hybrid Wheat, and have made great progress. We have studied different types of hybrids that have yielded 25-50% more than our local varieties.”

The next thing in their consideration was how to handle that key to the farmers.

Dr Abdul Rasheed conducted research on hybrid rice in Sindh in 2010. In order to promote the experimental results, their team gave hybrid rice seeds to farmers to use for free.

“Farmers used 40 kilogrammes of rice seeds per acre before, and the yield was about 50 maunds. I said if you use our seeds, with only 5 kilogrammes of seeds per acre, you can get double yield. All farmers said this was crazy, but the yield convinced them. Now we are promoting wheat seeds in the same way.”

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In addition to the lack of acceptance, the high price of new seeds, about Rs400 per kilogramme, unaffordable for ordinary small farmers, impedes promotion in Pakistan.

Many farmers said that they have strained to stabilise agricultural production and were unable to upgrade technologies in the aspects of seeds, irrigation, pesticides and fertilisers.

Despite the seemingly high prices of hybrid wheat seeds, farmers need fewer seeds. “Previously they needed to sow 60 kilogrammes of seeds per acre. Now it is only six kilogrammes and the rest of the wheat grains can be saved for consumption,” said Dr Abdul Rasheed.

He is confident that he can change the traditional way of growing wheat in Pakistan. “I think we can bring a revolution in this field.”

In the meantime, in order to reduce the burden on farmers, there will be a subsidy of about Rs200 per kilogramme of seeds.

“We have started a project with SEED Pakistan, a non-profit organisation. We will conduct demonstrations throughout K-P to show farmers how to grow this hybrid seed.”

In response to the heat wave in Pakistan, hybrid wheat can continue to grow at a high temperature of 40°C.

Meanwhile, the best feature of Chinese hybrid wheat seed is that they can be grown on less fertile land, so it is especially suitable for the arid areas of Pakistan.

This news was originally published by The Express Tribune.