ISLAMABAD -- The Pakistani government is inviting foreign business into the country's farms, giving rise to fears that this will finish off millions of small tillers and reduce national food supply.
However, the government insists this is needed to boost food production in a country where nearly a fifth of the over 135 million people are underfed.
The military government disclosed its plan to allow corporate farming in the country while unveiling the country's latest annual budget in June.
''We are working to finalise a policy for introducing corporate agriculture in the country where large farm holdings will be allowed to companies which would seek listing in the stock exchange,'' said an official of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
Foreign companies will be granted a 30-year lease on government-owned land that can be extended for another 20 years. ''The policy is near finalisation,'' the official added.
However, food rights campaigners expressed the fear that profit-driven agribusiness transnational companies (TNCs) would use Pakistan as a base for exporting cash crops which would replace staple cereals on the country's farms.
''The government is giving away the control over food to a bunch of multinational companies,'' said Mohammad Arshad of the Islamabad-based, The Network for Consumer Protection.
Agriculture is a mainstay of the economy, contributing 25 percent of the
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 60 percent of the total annual export earnings of some eight billion U.S. dollars. More than 70 per cent of Pakistan's labour force is engaged in farming and related economic activities.
The critics noted that the move to allow foreign business into farming came at a time when the government was cutting down support to farmers. According to Ayesha Iftikhar who works in food rights issues, the government had already slashed farm subsidies in keeping with its international trade commitments.
She feared that corporate farming would mean the end for small farmers who cannot compete with ''highly sophisticated and mechanised multinational companies.'' More than 80 per cent of Pakistani farmers own less than two
hectares of land. Many of them have none.
''Pakistan is already facing a situation where small farmers, unable to
produce enough to support their livelihoods, are abandoning farming in search of urban employment. This situation will only aggravate,'' said Iftikhar.
Government officials argued that the opening up was necessary to make Pakistani agriculture more efficient in an era of globalisation.
''We have to make our agricultural sector highly efficient and competitive in order to meet the future food requirements at home and also to be able to compete in the international trade arena,'' said an official in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) wing of the Ministry of Commerce.
The government had already announced a five-fold hike in agriculture spending over the next 10 years, but officials said this had to be supplemented by investment and know-how from private business.
In a media interview, Afaq Tiwana, a member of the government's Agricultural Advisory Board, described corporate agriculture as ''the need of the hour.''
''Without induction of new technology in the country's stagnant agriculture, neither the burgeoning food demands can be met nor can the country compete in the world markets,'' he asserted.
However, the critics said it was wrong to think that traditional farming is inefficient. ''Although ill-equipped... these farmers (small tillers) have been producing food for 135 million people,'' said Iftikhar.
They pointed out that corporate farming is based on the idea of maximising profits and not producing food for survival.
''Companies invest only in economically viable business ventures. If they find more profits in cash crops, they will invest in cash crops,'' said consumer rights activist, Tahir Mehdi.
This may boost the government's foreign exchange earnings, but not increase food production and Pakistan might be forced to import its food, he said.
''These multinational companies will utilise our land to produce seed on commercial basis for export to other countries of the region,'' said Arshad of The Network for Consumer Protection.
''We cannot stop the process of globalisation, but it doesn't mean that the state should forget people's interests,'' said Sarwar Bari of the Pattan Development Foundation that works in the countryside of southern Punjab province.
Bari said that NGOs working in Pakistan's villages would launch a campaign to rally farmers against the government's decision.
However, some economists did not expect foreign business to be interested. ''Like other sectors, the probability of foreign direct investment coming to agriculture is low,'' said leading Pakistani economist Asad Sayeed.
''The advanced state of decay of agricultural infrastructure and the generic perception of Pakistan being an unstable country will mean that the country's risk rating will remain high. This will surely apply to agriculture also,'' he explained.
Some agribusiness TNCs operating in Pakistan were pleased. ''We welcome
the government's decision to allow corporate farming which will pave way for private investment in this country's lucrative farming sector,'' an official of a TNC agro-seed company, who did not want to be identified, told IPS.
At present, TNCs like DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, Pioneer Group, AgriVo and ICI are marketing seeds in Pakistan.
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