FRUIT and vegetable production and their exports continue to suffer owing to the absence of a comprehensive policy capable of balancing domestic needs with challenges in export growth.
Exporters say fruits and veggies’ exports can fetch $1bn a year if investment is made in technology to boost their production and trade missions abroad provide support in marketing.
Forex earnings from fruits and vegetables totalled $440m in nine months of this fiscal year. Officials and exporters say full year earnings would remain close to the last year’s level of $630m.
In last five years, exports of fruits and veggies have averaged below $600m, with no big change over the FY12 figure of $540m. This is the situation despite the fact that mango and citrus fruit producers have made some improvements in orchard management, while tunnel farming has given boost to production of all veggies.
There are some missing links, however. Absence of timely flow of credible data on production and lack of information of exportable surplus takes a toll on exports’ growth.
“Last year, our mango crop was good at 172,000 tonnes but exports did not exceed 65,000 tonnes due to gaps in timely informtion on the crop size,” says a leading Karachi-based exporter.
Traditionally mango, citrus fruits and apple have dominated our fruit exports. And, among veggies, cabbage, cauliflower and red chilli have topped the list. Exports of potato, onion and tomato have remained uncertain.
The Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) officials say lack of a comprehensive policy on horticulture production and exports is responsible for most of the miseries in domestic availability of fruits and veggies and their exports.
“We’re happily eating apple imported from New Zealand and the US without even thinking for a moment why a country surplus in apple output is forced to import the fruit, particularly at a time when food trade deficit keeps growing?”
Provincial agriculture departments do not collect data on actual production of fruits and vegetables but rather make projections on sample data obtained from a couple of progressive farmers, exporters allege.
This, according to them, creates uncertainty about the crop size leaving traders unable to make realistic projections about export surplus or import requirements.
“People either follow guts or keep doing whatever they have been doing without taking stock of what is changing around,” says a leading trader at Karachi’s wholesale fruits and veggies’ market, who has lately been importing Kiwi fruits and has long been exporting mangoes.
“In agriculture, changes are taking place of such nature and magnitude and so rapidly that inefficient players would eventually be out of the game,” says a former FPCCI chief, referring to recent $43bn takeover of the Swiss pesticides and seeds group, Syngenta, by a Chinese company, ChemChina.
“Such mega developments do have far reaching impacts on the regional economies. One of the reasons why you see our horticulture sector in trouble is that lots of things like this either go unnoticed or their impact is analysed only when we are hit hard.”
Progressive tunnel farmers, users of agritech for crop monitoring and others who stay in tune with and make the most of latest research or technology development always get benefit of being the prime movers. “But we don’t have many of this lot in the horticulture sector.”
In case of mango and citrus fruits, first class studies on practical ways of boosting output are gathering dust in libraries. But of late, some initiatives have been taken with technical assistance from foreign countries to raise per-hectare production or cut post-harvest losses.
Small wonder that production of citrus fruits has increased from about 2m tonnes in FY13 to $2.4m tonnes in FY16, officials of Ministry of National Food Security and Research say. Exports of citrus fruits have, accordingly, gone up from about $150-200m during this period, exporters say.
Increased output of seedless kinnow (currently estimated around 500,000 tonnes) has played a big role in it, officials say. It is hoped that disease-resistant varieties of kinnow being promoted by Sargodha-based Citrus Research Institute will give exports a further boost.
Mango production has remained range-bound between 1.7-2.0m tonnes in the last five years. No major breakthrough has come in production techniques and even issues like fruit losses due to strong winds and falling of unripe fruits wait for permanent solution.
Agriculturists say new techniques in orchard caring and fruit picking via machines, as is being experimented in citrus fruits’ picking on a limited scale, can increase production.
“Besides, we need urgent support particularly in the context of hot water treatment (HWT) plants and controlled atmosphere (CA) storage under equity sharing arrangements and incentives on freight-on-board (FoB) value,” says Ahmad Jawad, chairman of FPCCI’s standing committee on horticulture.
He, and other horticulturists, say exporters of fruits and vegetables lament the role of our trade missions abroad in promoting exports.
A news report in Dawn in January pointed out that expenses on foreign trade missions increased 27pc to Rs1.7bn in FY16, but the bulk of the expenses went into payment of salaries and repair and maintenance of mission offices.
Thus, Pakistani exporters take longer time than their competitors in exploiting new export markets or sustaining the existing ones.
In case of fruit and vegetable exports, dependence on Afghanistan, the European and the Middle Eastern markets also keeps exports growth low. “Due to political tension between Kabul and Islamabad and between Islamabad and New Delhi, exports of vegetables to India and Afghanistan have fallen drastically,” says a leading Karachi-based exporter.