9 November 2009, Botay Wala, Pakistan - Rising food prices make it increasingly difficult for smallholder farmers in Pakistan to live off their land. In a major effort to improve their production capacities, the European Union (EU), together with FAO, has just provided seed and fertilizer to almost 100 000 vulnerable farmers in rural Pakistan.
Mohammad Shabaan, a 29-year old farmer from the village of Botay Wala, in Pakistan's Punjab province, explains how his revenues and yields have been declining over the last years. Soaring expenses are one reason: two years ago, 50 kilograms of fertilizer sold for 700 Rupees, or $ 8.40. Today, it is Rupees 2 200. "I can't afford to buy enough," Shabaan says.
The wheat production on his one acre plot has fallen from 1 600 to 1 200 kilograms per year, he says. Cotton, his cash crop, now brings in 16 000 Rupees a year, almost $ 200, as opposed to 24 000 Rupees two years ago.
It is a dire contrast. Shabaan's village sits right in Pakistan's agricultural heart, the Punjab, a major producer of wheat, rice, cotton, as well as fruits, like mangos and oranges. Nevertheless, over half of Botay Wala's population of 8 500 is either very poor, or destitute, according to local data.
Early October, 300 villagers, all of them farmers like Shabaan with landholdings of two acres or less, received seed and fertilizer, just in time for Pakistan's Rabi planting season starting in November. They were among the 97 500 small farmers throughout the country, which FAO provided with the means to grow under a € 24 million operation funded by the European Union Food Facility (EUFF) - the EU's € 1 billion response to rising hunger in the world.
Sustaining the family
"Rural areas have been doubly hit," says Faizul Bari, FAO's manager of the operation. Prices of food, seed and fertilizer are higher in the countryside than in the city, he explains, while the rural population earns less. This toxic mix, putting increasing pressure on small farmers' capabilities to sustain their livelihoods, reflects a long-term transformation of the Pakistani countryside, he says.
As an illustration, Bari uses his own life-experience. In the early sixties, when he was a boy, eight acres of farmland and 140 heads of livestock - his father's farm in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province - sustained their family of nine. It had to, because during six winter months, their village was totally cut off from the outside world.
Then, in the eighties, the road came and with it, outside supplies. Agriculture suffered. "Why keep a cow, if you can buy milk on the market?", Bari asks rhetorically. The road also offered Bari and his brothers the possibility to venture out. His brothers became civil servants, while he ended up managing FAO projects.
When their father died, they no longer used the land to feed themselves. Instead, they focused on cash crops requiring less attention, such as apples. The shift, Bari says, is that land once nourishing nine people, now yields less than $ 200 per year. And what do you do if you have not been able to find a job like Bari and his brothers?
"Farmers have been drained," says Bari. "FAO tries to help them recover interest in agriculture and bring it back to its due place." Seed and fertilizer alone are not enough, he adds. FAO is providing farmers with training, as well as support in limiting post-harvest losses and in improving irrigation or water harvesting systems.
In Botay Wala, Shabaan confirms that rising input prices are not his only concern. He also ascribes his dwindling yields to lacking water. A lot of water gets lost in ill-maintained irrigation canals.
Yet, he can be considered among the luckier farmers of his village. Some of his peers have grown so discouraged that they have sold their land, and moved to the city in search of income. Shabaan on the other hand, combines farming with a part-time job at a seed production company. Meanwhile, his wheat harvest still covers the needs of his household consumption.
And he would like to keep it that way, he smiles. Recently married, he therefore thinks it is best to wait a while before any children come.