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Agriculture is a key sector in Pakistan, a country struggling in transition between low and middle income status, and politically instable. Outside the Indus Valley irrigated grain basket, many Pakistani farmers practice low-yield rainfed farming, facing frequent droughts. Poverty and malnutrition are high, especially in rural areas. ICRISAT works with Pakistani agricultural research partners to improve smallholder farming productivity. Research includes crop improvement (especially chickpea) and climate change adaptation.

60% - Share of Pakistan's territory  classified as rangelands

25% - Pakistan’s  irrigation water losses through leakages

75% - Irrigation water that is brackish in Pakistan

2nd - Pakistan’s global rank in chickpea production


General context

Pakistan is located between war-torn Afghanistan and India. The Indus river is the "green heart" of Pakistan. About 90% of agricultural products come from its irrigated floodplains. Western Pakistan includes high mountainous regions, covered by forest and grazing rangelands (60% of the territory) where the rural population lives from subsistence farming and livestock raising. The North is known for its orchards.

About 65% of Pakistan's population lives in villages and is formally or informally dependent on agriculture. It employs about 45% of the labour force and contributes 57% in terms of export earnings. Agriculture provides cotton (a major crop) to the textile industry (largest industrial sector), sugar and other raw materials for the food industry.

A small number of landlords practice large-scale farming with financial support from  the government while a majority of farmers continue with traditional farming methods and poor yields.

Kharif (summer) crops include rice, sugarcane, cotton and maize; typical rabi (winter) crops are wheat, gram (a pulse), rapeseed, barley and mustard. Wheat is the main cereal crop as bread is the main staple food.

In recent decades, Pakistan has further developed its irrigation areas. Yet, long drought periods, inefficient irrigation (25% water lost in leakages) and unsustainable farming practices have led to a collapse in agricultural productivity. It is estimated that 75% of irrigation water is now brackish and 10% of agricultural lands have been lost because of an increase in soil salinity.

A growing population leads to a fragmentation of holdings. Small holdings, lack of capital and knowledge in modern farming techniques means yields remain very low. The government recently announced important investments in agriculture including a crop maximization project with over a hundred knowledge centres and support to mechanization. However, farming challenges remain huge and will require long-term commitment for sustainable and inclusive agriculture development.

ICRISAT research in Pakistan

ICRISAT works with Pakistan and international agricultural research partners on various priority issues to improve Pakistan's smallholder agriculture in the areas of crop research, especially chickpea, better water and soil management, and prospective agricultural research, such as building climate scenarios for better adaptation to climate change.

Pulses like chickpea are very important for the nutrition of poor families but yields are usually very poor. Pakistan is the world's second largest producer of chickpea after India, yet it imports huge quatities as yields are as low as 500 kg/ha (ref: FAOstat, 2011). The use of varieties that yield better under salinity and other main stresses is one way forward to boost yields. Pakistan will benefit from chickpea research breakthroughs under the CGIAR Research Program on Grain legumes, such as heat- tolerant, extra-early and machine harvestable improved chickpea varieties.

Apart from the Indus Valley, most of Pakistan's territory is semi-arid and arid lands, prone to droughts. By 2050, average temperatures may increase by 2.7 degrees, which will increase pressure on already stretched water resources.

 The crop portfolio may then shift toward more heat- and drought-tolerant crops like dryland cereals and early-maturing varieties of pulses. 

Chickpea is important for the livelihoods of many Pakistani farmers, like in the Thal desert of Punjab