Just one quarter into the new fiscal the agri growth target of 3.5 percent for 2021-22 is already unlikely to be met after the cotton sowing target was missed by 13.4 percent and its production target had to be revised down from 10.5 million bales to 8.46 million bales. It’s not yet known whether production targets of other crops like wheat, sugarcane, maize and pulses will meet similar fates or not because such data is not yet available, but if we also end up importing more food than planned just when the dollar is becoming more expensive, then the current account deficit will become an even bigger headache. So much for putting agriculture front-and-centre in the budget.

Missing the cotton target will have consequences far beyond agriculture. Cotton crop is the backbone of the value-added textile sector, contributes 0.6 percent to GDP and 3.1 percent to value-add in agriculture, and also powers the country’s prime export industry. Now all sorts of calculations will have to be made all over again, fresh orders placed, some cancelled, and entire revenue streams revised because something so important went off-plan even before the ink on the budget document had dried properly. And if other important crops follow suit, then the ambitious, expansionary budget has had it. That explains why the food ministry is urging provincial governments to finalise the minimum support price for wheat before the sowing season begins around end-October.

There are many reasons behind lower agri output. Bigger problems arise when the seeds that are planted are substandard, technology employed is below par, mechanisation is not up to 21st century standards, and enough water is not available. Then, when after all this the produce is readied for market, middlemen and mafias manipulate the supply chain to milk their own windfalls, which makes people pay extra for their food and the government even more to import enough quantities for them.

But all these factors have been at play for a rather long time; during which Pakistan was reduced to a food importing country from a food exporting one. And it’s a crying shame that government after government has voiced concern about this trend, yet everybody just stood idly by as our natural comparative advantage was so mercilessly wasted. Agriculture is still the economy’s largest employer but almost everybody associated with it, except those that exploit and corrupt it, has seen incomes drop and quality of life deteriorate over the last few years. This is clearly an untenable situation; not just from the production-consumption point of view, but also because of the import-export imbalance.

Agriculture needs better and more serious attention than it is getting at the moment. The way the finance minister spoke of the government’s newfound resolve to improve this sector at the time of the budget gave the impression that its fortunes might finally begin to turn around. Yet it’s the first to suffer a blow as the year has got going. Hopefully, this will trigger the right kind of response from the government. It must first get to the bottom of why the cotton sowing target was missed, not just to fix blame but also to rule out a repeat performance next year. Then it must make a list of short- and long-term measures that are required to restore the health of the agri sector. And then, one by one, it must dot all the Is, cross all the Ts, and plug all the holes. That’s common sense, of course, but it’s been in painfully short supply where decisions about agriculture have been made for far too long.