Oil production: A way forward to cut import bill

PESHAWAR (APP) – Despite ecological diversity, suitable climate, and vast fertile land, Pakistan is unfortunately among the lowest edible oil-producing countries.

Having only 20 percent domestic production of the total requirement, the country spends approximately US$ 4 billion annually on the import of edible oil to meet the pressing demand of its around 220 million population.

Respective governments and policymakers could not fully benefit from over 4.4 million hectares of fertile land suitable for the cultivation of olive, sunflower, soybean, corn, canola, and other oils.

“Pakistan’s annual requirement of edible oil is about five million tons (MT) with approximately 16kg per capita use and most of its chunk is imported from Malaysia and Indonesia,” said Dr Ehsan Khan, Director of Edible Oil Productivity Institute.

Dr Ehsan said that in 2006 edible oil’s import bill was only US$ 615 million which jumped to US$ 3.8 billion in 2022 with the country presently producing around six MT.

“If edible oil prices increase by five percent annually, the country’s imports would further jump. In this situation, sunflower, olive, canola, and other products would go beyond common man’s reach,” he said.

Quoting an example, he said, Spain was producing about 45 percent of world’s total edible oil by utilizing 2.6 million hectares of land. On the contrary, Pakistan despite having vast tracts of fertile land was importing around 80 percent of the required commodity.

It is welcoming that in recent years, the government realized this challenge and focused on fully utilizing olive potential land in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Merged Areas, Balochistan, Punjab, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan through a substantial plantation of edible oil plants and declared several areas as ‘Olive Valleys.’

“About 100,000 and 300,000 hectares land in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan is now being used for sunflower and canola cultivation respectively,” Dr Ehsan informed.

“Besides introducing edible oil policy and training of farmers, a five-year mega project ‘Enhancement of Productivity of Oil Seeds’ was launched in 2019-20 to promote edible oil farming,” he added.

He said that the first olive promotion project worth Rs 3.82 billion funded by the Government of Italy was launched on June 1, 2012 to cultivate oil seeds on over 1,500 hectares of land. The project was handed over to Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) on February 12, 2012 and completed on June 30, 2015.

To capitalize on this project, the Pakistan government launched the ‘Promotion of Olive Trees Cultivation on Commercial Scale (POTCCS)’ project worth Rs 3.2 billion in 2015 for increasing the production of edible oil.

Thousands of olive grafting trees mostly of Italian variety planted under POTCCS could be seen on the mountains of Talash in Lower Dir, on way to Chitral.

“I am glad to see olive cultivation in my native Talash area. These trees were distributed among farmers by the federal government under POTCCS,” said Engr Khushal Khan, a progressive farmer from Lower Dir.

“Our villagers participated in the mass plantation at Talash mountains and the trees planted, have now started producing olives,” Engr Khushal said.

Dr Abdul Rauf Khan, Director General, Agriculture Extension KP said that fertile land was mostly preferred for sunflowers’ cultivation as it required less water than others. “Sunflower is a cost-efficient crop with three months tenure. Farmers can easily earn Rs 200,000 to Rs 250,000 from one-acre sunflower as compared to Rs 130,000 to Rs 150,000 from one-acre olive.”

Dr Rauf said that progressive farmers had started shifting to the commercial cultivation of edible oil crops in Pakistan. At present eight to ten varieties were under cultivation while research on around 50 more varieties was underway to ascertain their weather adaptability and climate change resistance.

A four-year ‘Edible Oil Seeds’ PSDP project has also been launched across the country with 50% shared financing by Federal and Provincial Governments.

“We have set up eight oil processing and purification plants in different research centers at Bajaur, Peshawar, Lower Dir, Swat and Kohat districts to facilitate edible oil farmers,” Rauf said.

Ahmad Said, Chief Planning Officer of Agriculture Department KP said that around 70 million wild olive plants were discovered in merged tribal districts and in Malakand, Hazara, Peshawar, Kohat, Karak, Nowshera, Hangu and Chitral districts. “It means, these areas are suitable for olive cultivation.”

“Over 1.2 million olive plants on 1,300 hectares were planted in KP and each tree produces three-kilogram oil,” he said and added, “olive tree starts production in five years and continues with it till decades. A farmer can earn Rs 450,000 from 1,500 kg olive.”

He said that under the National Agriculture Program, 75,000 acres land across the country would be brought under olive cultivation in five years besides grafting of two million wild olives under the Agriculture Transformation Plan.

Potohar region including Rawalpindi, Attock, Chakwal, Jhelum and Khushab in the Punjab Government and Santa Bhatta in Mardan had been declared Olive Valleys, Ahmad said.

A mega ‘Olive Promotion Project’ worth Rs two billion has been approved for merged tribal districts in KP budget 2022-23 to raise olive orchards on 14,000 acres and grafting of 1.3 million wild olives. Moreover, a subsidy of Rs 5,000 per acre and 50 percent relaxation on agriculture equipment is being provided to farmers.

The provision of free seeds to growers under the ‘National Edible Oils Project’ launched in 2019-20 has immensely helped increase the cultivation of canola and other plants.

Till 2019-20, only 3,087 acres of land in KP was used for the cultivation of edible oil-producing plants which increased to 7,271 and 12,213 acres in 2020-21 and 2021-22 respectively.

The experts believe that focusing on the cultivation of edible oil would help save a considerable amount of our foreign exchange.

(Source: National print and online media with input from social media and local sources).

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