Phase out subsidies to bring efficiency to agri-food system WB.

ISLAMABAD -- Saying that the wheat support system needs to be gradually phased down, the latest World Bank report observed that the wheat procurement system in Pakistan is regressive because it benefits mainly large and medium farmers, commercial banks, and millers, and the cumulative outstanding debt from wheat commodity operations is at nearly $4.5 billion creating a circular debt-like situation.

Officially released on Thursday, the World Bank report, 'Country Climate and Development Report for Pakistan' says the agri-food system is fraught with inefficient, costly, inequitable subsidies that are an economic burden and create a distorted incentive structure, which plays a significant role in the sector's poor performance.

According to the report, poor smallholders benefit little because most of their production - about 95 per cent in Sindh - is for subsistence. The procurement system also incurs losses through poor storage, which costs Punjab an estimated $1.6 billion annually. Wheat remains the primary cereal crop, so its production inevitably absorbs large subsidies.

Given its dietary importance, steady growth in wheat output will remain necessary to maintain food security. However, this needs to be done through substantial improvement in productivity and less intensive use of chemical inputs, land, and water, rather than the further expansion of conventional production methods.

At the same time, for sustained improvements in human capital, a shift is needed in diets and agricultural production towards a more diverse and nutritious basket of foods, including vegetables and fruits, which could contribute to both higher productivity and greater health.

Phasing out the wheat support system, the report says, will reduce direct financial costs to the government and indirect economic losses, free up fiscal space, arable land, and irrigation water, and create the enabling economic environment needed to induce large-scale crop diversification and climate-smart agriculture.

Freed-up fiscal resources could be invested to improve wheat production systems and value chains. Modelling work indicates that removing support to wheat production could free up 1.4 billion cubic meters of irrigation water per year. This could be used to grow higher-value crops to substitute for agricultural imports for which demand is rising.

Furthermore, with improved agronomic...

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