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Turning Potohar into olive growing region              
By Ahmad Fraz Khan

July 4, 2011: Though Punjab has declared it as an olive area but it is still to come up with concrete medium- and long-term planning for the crop. – File Photo

THE Punjab government has earmarked its barani (Potohar) region as olive area. That rekindles hopes among economists that it has woken up to the potential of the crop,
and the role it can play in bringing down the edible oil import bill.

One hopes that this time the provincial government follows up its decision to tap the crop’s potential. History is not on its side though; for the last four decades,
the governments, both federal and provincial, came up with numerous projects to develop olive plants in the country and reduce edible oil import bill, which now stands
second only to petroleum products. Oil, thus in both forms, is draining the economy beyond its capacity.

Among a long list of crops that can produce edible oil, olive assumes added significance for its medicinal usage – it does not cause high cholesterol. Olive oil thus
has a high value for Pakistanis, who are among the top users of oil in the world, with 13kg per person per year consumption. But last four decades chronicles failed
attempts to produce olive plants, leave alone oil, locally. It may be time to revisit, and learn from those failed attempts especially when agriculture stands devolved
to province.
 

 

One lesson could be that all our local attempts to produce olive have failed because of lack of capacity of our scientists and those trying to replicate olive
production here. One can safely say that it was matter of capacity because both soil and climate support production of local olive. Granted that it is hard-to-root
plants and success rate world over is not very high. But it is certainly as low as the case has turned out to be in Pakistan.

Thus it may also be time to involve some international company, which can build certain, and limited, model olive area, which others can follow. There are many
European firms that can do the job. Pakistan’s barani (rain-fed) area is larger than of many countries making name in olive export. There is thus no reason why
Pakistan can not only bring its edible oil import bill down but also earn foreign exchange. It is a matter of time, effort and planning.

Though Punjab has declared it as an olive area but it is still to come up with concrete medium- and long-term planning for the crop. How much money it would spend in
the area to promote plantation? After all, it takes almost five years before the plants
start yielding the produce and given the scale of poverty in these areas, farmer can hardly wait that long.

The Punjab government should also announce a buyback arrangement so that farmers know that they would not be risking next five years’ labour at the altar of official
experiment. Apart from buyback arrangements, investment in value addition should also be part of the olive planning. The provincial government should firm up all these
contours of olive policy if it does not want its efforts going the way all the earlier ones went. The current one should not become a project for project sake, and
drag on provincial resources.

Apart from olive, Punjab also needs to develop other crops that yield edible oil. So far, the entire attention has been focused on olive at the cost of others. The
province, and the country, has ended up with neither. Most of brassica crops – like sunflower and canola – are Rabi crops and compete with wheat and gram for space.
But better planning for both these crops can easily spare the area.

There are a number of wheat seeds available in the market that could double the current average yield in the country. It is a matter of planning and promotion. The
gram yield has in fact dropped in the last 63 years; it is lower than in 1947. It only goes to prove that sparing soil should not be a problem for the country with
better planning.

Then there are minor crops like sesamum, which is shorter and single-irrigation crop that can produce oil. Pakistan has been exporting sesmum to the tune of Rs700
million but has not been able to turn the crop into one reducing oil import bill. It is because of official neglect of the crop. There are hybrid seeds available in
the market that can increase the yield by three to four times. But they have neither been acknowledged nor promoted. The current seed is susceptible to all kinds of
diseases and on many occasions farmers lost their entire crop to blight. Thus bringing new seeds is need of the hour.

Similarly, moringa is another option. The official planners need to consider local wisdom and knowledge before chalking out projects and grand plans. Olive attempts
have failed because there was no local knowledge to back it up. In case of other edible oil crops, there is experience of centuries and farmers are completely
comfortable with those crops. It is not to suggest that olive should drop down the priority list, but only to argue that local crops are much easier and much cheaper
to promote.

Bureaucratic grand ideas, which they borrow from other parts of the world, become hard and expensive to replicate. Without yielding quick results, they fall out of
political favour and get lost. This has been by and large pattern of all agriculture projects implemented in the country so far.

The Punjab government would do well to save the olive initiative going the same way. That is why it needs to meticulously plan the project from a-to-z, allocate
finances for it and let some foreign consultants do the job on a limited scale. The local companies can follow them along side. Meanwhile, it should also plan for
other oil-yielding crops and save the billions of dollars being spent on oil import bill.


Courtesy: The DAWN

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