22/09/2007 (Gulfnews.com), Islamabad - A surge in Pakis-tan's planned imports of palm oil in September says much about the opportunities and challenges the country faces in its push towards self-sufficiency in the production of edible oils.
This month Pakistani importers placed orders for up to 140,000 tonnes of palm oil, significantly up from an average monthly volume of about 100,000 tonnes.
Pakistan consumes up to three million tonnes of edible oil annually and meets a significant part of its demand through imports because of its inability to produce enough edible oil domestically.
Promises of reform
Successive Pakistani regimes have promised a large-scale reform process to raise domestic production. In the ultimate analysis, however, such promises have seldom been fulfilled, partly due to a continuing gap between intentions and actual results.
Pakistan's reality as an agricultural driven country essentially means that there should be no reason for successive governments not to meet palm oil requirements through local means. Over the years, farmers have been urged to step up the production sunflower and soybean - sources of edible oil.
Almost a quarter of Pakistan's annual gross domestic product comes from agriculture. This sector is directly or indirectly responsible for being the source of subsistence for up to half of Pakistan's 165 million population.
Curtailing edible oil imports will also help Pakistan reduce its fast rising international trade deficit, which during the last financial year rose to more than $13 billion.
In spite of a multitude of reasons for the expansion of edible oil production within the country, the response from Pakistan's farmers to calls for more production has generally been lacklustre.
Many farmers complain about the government's failure to establish a credible and efficient domestic market system where they can sell edible oil. Indeed, there are many farmers, especially with small acreages, who have succeeded in getting better than average yields, but have subsequently given up as they faced difficulties in selling the produce.
Other farmers unsuccessfully try to raise yields, a fast-growing trend across Pakistan's agricultural sector. In recent years, the per acre yield of crops has remained almost stagnant. This comes at a time when many countries have successfully raised their yields.
Pakistani governments have done little to support the growth and expansion of agricultural research.
They have also failed to deal with the breakdown of the irrigation system. Other failures have included the virtual absence of services to disseminate information to farmers on basic farming practices.
The failure to make Pakistan self-sufficient in the production of edible oils will have wider economic implications in the country.