PAKISTAN produces huge quantities of major staple and non-staple food crops, including wheat, rice, maize, sugar cane and cotton. Still, the state of food security in the country is far from satisfactory.
A rise in population, climate change and depleting water resources are only exacerbating the situation, and failure to achieve food security may push the country towards food imports.
Gauging the severity of the food security issue, the federal government has launched the Prime Minister’s National Agriculture Emergency Programme to increase the productivity of some selected livestock and crops, including oilseeds such as canola, mustard, soya bean, etc.
Despite their significant importance in food and feed, oilseed crops are categorised as minor crops in Pakistan. Because of their secondary position at research and policy level, oilseed crops have failed to find a priority place in our cropping system until recently.
Major oilseed crops grown in Pakistan are canola, rapeseed, cotton and sunflower, which are primarily used for edible (cooking) oil needs. With an annual population growth rate of around two per cent, the demand for cooking oil has been on the rise in Pakistan with every passing year, but the local production of oilseed crops is negligible, and country is dependent on imported edible oil.
It can help reduce edible oil imports, which have almost doubled to 3.35m tonnes in the last five years
For example, during the 2016-17 fiscal year, only 12pc of our total edible oil requirement of nearly 3.6 million tonnes was met by local produce. The remainder was contributed by imports, which cost the country around $3 billion.
Edible oil imports have doubled in the last five years, rising from 1.67m tonnes in 2014-15 to 3.35m tonnes in 2018-19, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.
Soya bean is a rich and economical source of nutrition, containing up to 42pc of best-quality protein, 22pc oil contents and 30pc carbohydrates besides significant amounts of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
The soya bean seed also contains many limiting amino acids, namely lysine, linoleic and linolenic acids, which are essential for human but not synthesised by human body itself. Therefore, soya bean oil is the best source of essential elements required for human growth and development.
Owing to its prime nutritional value and multiplex uses, it is also called the “golden bean”. Moreover, it contains the highest amounts of oil and protein contents than other oilseeds.
Soya bean is a non-conventional crop and owing to its marginal cultivation, it is less popular among Pakistani farmers. Interestingly, all the four provinces
of Pakistan are suitable for soya bean cultivation and this crop needs minimal amounts of fertilisers as compared with cash crops like cotton, sugar cane, maize, etc.
Historically, soya bean was recognised as popular crop for intercropping with sugar cane, an ideal combination of an exhaustive and restorative crop. Its cultivation in Pakistan peaked in 1990, but then it started to decline gradually and almost disappeared from our fields by 2010.
Soya bean is a short duration crop, maturing in 90 to 120 days depending on the seed variety and weather. It also fits well in our existing cropping system without clashing with major crops.
Therefore, farmers could utilise rice, cotton, and rain-fed fallow areas for soya bean cultivation. The respective patterns for soya bean cultivation in rain-fed, rice and cotton areas are wheat-soya bean-wheat, rice-soya bean-rice, and cotton-soya bean-cotton.
The cultivation of soya bean after exhaustive crops (wheat, rice and cotton) also helps restore the soil fertility and health for the next exhaustive crop, because soya bean captures nitrogen from air and stores it in the soil.
Due to a lack of policy and low return value, soya bean has failed to earn a respectable position in the existing farming schemes of Pakistan.
The unavailability of quality seeds, lack of production technology, extension services and marketing facilities have worsened the situation.
As the soya bean can help cut edible oil imports to a significant extent, the Ministry of National Food Security and Research needs to launch a massive information drive at federal level in close coordination with provincial agricultural departments and oilseed boards.
The Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) has already taken initiatives for increasing soya bean cultivation in a few districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, distributing soya bean seed to farmers free of cost.
PARC and regional agricultural research institutes including Faisalabad’s Ayub Agricultural Research Institute and Swat’s Agricultural Research Institute have developed some novel varieties of soya bean suitable for local soil and climatic conditions.
Better availability of native seed varieties is imperative for the success of the soya bean crop across the country. The efforts being made in this regard need to be accelerated and taken to the level of small farmers rather than focused only on progressive growers.
Small farmers comprise more than 90 per cent of our farming community and a little incentive to smallholder peasants can yield promising results.
Marketing soya bean in Pakistan is no more a problem because of its versatility and wide use in human food, livestock and poultry feeds. Poultry feed has emerged as the biggest user of this crop after oil extraction in the country. Moreover, its other uses in paints, polymers, wood adhesives, synthetic fibres, fire foams, pesticides, medicines, cosmetics and papers make it an ideal crop to embed in our existing cropping patterns.
Soya bean is in indeed a miracle crop, and a little effort by the government to boost its cultivation may save billions of dollars being spent on edible oil imports.
The writer is an assistant professor at the Centre for Climate Research and Development of the COMSATS University Islamabad
Publish in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 13th 2020