Pakistan’s rural economy is at the crossroads and so are the farmers. Rural economy is largely associated with agriculture sector (crops, livestock, poultry, farm forestry etc.), however off-farm activities have also become an important component of our rural economy.

Agriculture sector is of critical importance not only for national economy but also for rural livelihoods and overall food security of country. Despite its significance, the agriculture sector has been suffering from continuous decline. Growth in agriculture sector has declined sharply as the average growth has slowed down from about 5.5% in 1960s to 4.5% in 1990s, 3% in 2000s and less than 2% during the last five years. Likewise, the share of agricultural sector in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has dropped from about 40% in 1960s, 25% in 1980s and 18.5% in 2019. Nevertheless, despite slower growth, the agriculture sector remains an important source of foreign exchange and major source of raw material for agro-based industrial sector.

In the era of value-addition and high value crops, the agricultural sector of Pakistan is still dominated by five traditional crops i.e., wheat, cotton, sugarcane, rice and maize. Though vegetables, fruits and lentils are being grown by a large number of farmers but these are limited to some specific regions. Five major crops account for almost 22% in the value addition of agriculture sector while other crops (mainly millet, grams, sorghum, lentils etc.) accounted for only 11% in value addition during the year 2018-19.

Despite thorough efforts by the concerned departments to persuade farmers for the adoption of high-value crops particularly oilseed crops, majority of the farmers are still relying on traditional crops. As a matter of fact, marketing system of traditional crops has been well established and farmers feel comfortable while selling their crop and they can also have some idea of price of their crop before harvesting. On the other hand, in case of alternate crops, majority of them are always uncertain because of comparatively less established and erratic market system.

 Livestock subsector has become the largest contributor to agricultural value addition and it has surpassed the crop sector. Currently its contribution is about 60% to the overall agriculture and 11% to the GDP. In our rural setup most of the farming household keep one or two farm animals (buffaloes, cattle, goats etc.) and chickens which help them to cater some of their food requirement and to obtain some additional income. Livestock sector has shown good growth during the past few years, however, little attention has been paid towards value addition of livestock products. Though some large milk processing companies have established their selling points in some areas but majority of smallholder livestock farmers are dependent on middleman for selling milk. From producers to consumers at least two to four middlemen are involved in the market chain of milk and in this market chain producer (farmer) is the loser.

Consequently, agriculture is increasingly becoming subsistence oriented livelihood strategy for most of the rural households. Even in the famous ‘food basket’ zones of country income from farm produce is increasingly becoming less important for overall household income. More and more rural families are being reliant on off-farm income rather than agriculture. Migration has emerged as one of the major off-farm activities and, in most of the rural households, some male family members work either in foreign countries or in big cities of Pakistan. Dependence on remittances is substantially higher in resource scare areas of KP, arid and semi-arid zones of the Punjab.

Farming households consider migration as a major adaptive strategy to support their livelihoods in the backdrop of diminishing income from agriculture. The researchers agree that rural to urban migration does have many positive impacts on rural economy. Better employment opportunities and social services such as education and medical care are the main triggers of rural to urban migration. However, policy makers have not yet considered migration as an adaptive strategy and growing rural-urban migration has multiplied the problems of urban areas leading to unplanned growth of peri-urban areas.

In the above mentioned scenario, young generation of farmers is not much interested to continue farming as profession because farming is a tough job and profitability in traditional farming is rather small. In many countries of the world ageing crisis is a big challenge in agriculture and we are also going to face this in the near future. As a matter of fact, farming has never been promoted as a business and our future farmers prefer to invest their human capital in off-farm livelihood activities such as minor jobs, small business, daily wage laborers, and migration to cities etc. The situation is so grave that even a majority of graduates from agricultural universities belonging to rural areas is not interested to adopt farming as profession.

Livestock sub-sector has huge potential and can significantly contribute to foreign exchange earnings. However, lack of value addition is a limiting factor. Active engagement of private sector, capacity building of smallholder livestock farmers particularly women, and provision of efficient marketing channel for value added products can bring far-reaching changes in the rural economy.

Pakistani farmers are at the crossroads and so is the rural economy. But there is light of hope at the end of tunnel. Enhancing the production of food is focus of the government, but it is now time to give more attention towards enhancing farmers’ income. Agricultural Knowledge and Information System (AKIS) of Pakistan is well established. There is a large network of federal and provincial agricultural research institutes, agricultural universities and private sector R&D facilities, while agricultural extension workers are present even at union council level. Coordinating the efforts of different stakeholders – agricultural universities, research institutes, extension, private sector, NGOs and farmers’ organizations – towards the focused agenda of enhancing farmers’ income with sustainable agricultural practices will certainly lead to sustainable rural economy.

Author is faculty member at University of Agriculture Faisalabad and Member of the working group on Food Security under the Strategic Policy Planning Cell of National Security Division, Islamabad.