Vegetables constitute an integral component of our cropping pattern but the increasing pressure on food and cash crops has limited the area under vegetables to about 3.1% of the total cropped area. Because they have a shorter maturity period vegetables fit well in most farming systems. Vegetables provide proteins, minerals and vitamins required for human nutrition. In Pakistan though, the daily per capita intake is low, being about 100 grams compared to the recommended consumption of about 285 grams. Vegetables are very important due to their higher yield potential, higher return and high nutritional value while being suitable for small land holding farmers. Most Pakistanis prefer cooked vegetables over raw vegetables, use plenty of fat during cooking and like to stir-fry their vegetables but high heat kills many of the beneficial nutrients and vitamins, and the excessive fat intake encourages obesity and high cholesterol.
Despite favorable climatic and cropping conditions Pakistan has repeatedly seen shortages of different vegetables like onion or tomato in the market that caused price rise and difficulty for many people. More than 35 varieties of vegetables are grown in different climatic zones in different provinces of Pakistan. Different climates result in the availability of many vegetable varieties in the markets around the year. More than 95% of the potatoes come from Punjab, onions come to 41% from Sindh, 29% from Baluchistan and 20% from Punjab. Tomatoes take third position with about 40% coming from Baluchistan.
Yields of vegetables produced in Pakistan are low which is due to infestation with diseases, low plant density, weed infestation and poor water quality. By adopting suitable seeds and cultivating methods yields could be extended considerably.
While agriculture constitutes the largest sector of Pakistan’s economy, horticulture –fruit and vegetables- contribute only 11 % to the total value addition. Pakistan exports small amounts of vegetables to Afghanistan, Malaysia, Russia, Bahrain, UAE and Sri Lanka. Vegetable exports suffered a significant drop of about 40% in 2011/12. The drop in vegetable exports is a consequence of natural disasters, unfair profiteering by middlemen and a change in supply and demand dynamics in the foreign markets. The flood in 2010 also contributed to the devastation of crops.
However, according to the Asian Development Bank until today Pakistan remains a low level producer of vegetables basically for the domestic market only. In some instances, Pakistan has to import vegetables. One such example is pulses. Pulses are the most important source of vegetable protein in Pakistan. The demand for pulses is increasing because of the population growth and the fact that dal is cheap staple food for the poor. There is a need to develop varieties with higher yield potential that respond to improved management practices so as to meet the increasing demand of pulses and for import substitution. Pakistan Agricultural Research Council has started a program in order to develop varieties of chickpea, lentil, mung bean and black gram through breeding, molecular techniques and selection. The new varieties should be responsive to high inputs like irrigation, fertilizers and inoculation and be resistant to disease, drought and cold. Last year a four-person U.S. pulse industry team visited Karachi during April 29-May 1 to attend the first U.S. pulses seminar, hold industry meetings, visit a processing facility, see a traditional grain market and tour a hypermarket. But instead of helping Pakistani agro-industry the visit resulted in Pakistani buyers contracting for import of American pulses for the coming year. Overall, Pakistan is spending Rs. 102 billion annually on import of pulses. Among the reasons for that is that pulses were grown in marginalized land which has low productivity due to lack of water.
As can be seen there are multiple factors constraining not only the production of pulses but of all vegetables. One important factor apart from seeds quality, diseases and others is the human factor. The majority of the population in Pakistan lives in rural areas where poverty is deep and widespread. People are not only poor but mostly uneducated. Whatever knowledge farmers have is from their fathers and grandfathers. Not or insufficiently able to read and write is another major constraint. New seeds and how to handle them, use of new fertilizers are incomprehensible to them. Moreover, many of them are landless or small farmers with holdings too small to be profitable. And the number of such people is increasing with the passage of time. Has there ever been an attempt to bring small landowners in a cooperative together? That would solve the problem of too small holdings, access to credits, training-on the job and others.
Growing vegetables should be a suitable option for them as these are short-duration crops fetching higher returns. Expanding their cultivation can provide essential dietary nutrients at low prices and reduce unemployment, which in turn would reduce rural poverty. The lack of irrigation water is another reason for hindering expansion. There is a large number of other factors, such as the traditional farm management practices, non-availability of infrastructure, lack of funds, absence of marketing channels, and water shortage because of insufficient or no access to canal water. All of these could be easier tackled if small farmers act together in a cooperative.
Vegetables grown in Pakistan are an important addition to Pakistani nutrition. Nutritional pattern here are anyway in need of improvement. Malnutrition is a frequent pattern especially among children. Instead of consuming too much oil, wheat and sugar that lack vitamins, proteins and other healthy ingredients consumption of raw vegetables in form of salads or as snacks or promoting healthier preparation of vegetable like cautious boiling that does not destroy vitamins will need time and promotion among the population to be accepted. In addition, vegetable produced in good quality and quantity could help to substitute imports or even be exported. In 2018 the nutrition Section of the Planning Commission of GOP in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organizations (FAO) of the UN developed Pakistan Dietary Guidelines for Better Nutrition – a ambitious program to improve dietary customs in Pakistan. The precondition for its implementation would be the production of quality and stabile quantity of vegetables.
Ikram Sehgal is a defense and security analyst and Dr Bettina Robotka, former Professor of South Asian Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin