BHAGWAL, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As Pakistan struggles with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns linked to climate change, farmers in arid regions are seizing on a drought-resilient crop better known from southern Europe and the Middle East: olives.
Ghulam Mustafa, 53, is one of the farmers in Chakwal district of Pakistan’s Punjab province who is experimenting with growing olives, alongside his normal wheat and peanut crops, to cope with worsening drought problems.
“I am expecting five times more production of olives than wheat,” Mustafa, who owns more than 50 acres of land, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. He planted about 500 olive trees in June 2010, and expects his first harvest in 2016.
“Every two years there is a spell of drought in the area” that can last as much as a year or more, he said. Traditional crops, he said, increasingly cannot cope with the hot, dry weather conditions.
The olives, experts say, could not only help farmers like Mustafa protect their incomes and the country’s food security, but, if turned into olive oil, could save Pakistan some of the nearly half a billion dollars in foreign exchange it spends each year purchasing edible oils.
To cope with drying conditions on his farm, Mustafa has installed a drip irrigation system to save on irrigation water and expenses. Olive trees are drought-resilient and can also be irrigated with small amounts of water, he says. Plus, “the production of olive oil will help not only increase my income but also prestige in the society,” he said.
At least 70 percent of Pakistan’s land is arid, with rainfall insufficient in some areas to grow crops without irrigation. Increasingly erratic rainfall has reduced the yields of traditional crops such as wheat, peanuts, maize and millet in arid areas of the country.
With the help of the Italian government, Pakistan has identified potential olive cultivation areas in different parts of the country, including restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and southwestern Baluchistan province. The government of Punjab has declared Potohar region as “Olive Valley” for its suitability for olive growing.
PAKISTAN’S ‘OLIVE VALLEY’
The “Olive Valley” includes Attock, Rawalpindi, Jhelum and Khushab districts. The government of Punjab, with the help of Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) and the Italian government, is planning to develop ten certified olive nurseries in these districts, spread through an area of 27,000 acres (10,900 hectares).
Muhammad Munir Goraya, director of the national olive project and senior director of crops at PARC, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that Pakistan, with the financial help of the Italian government, plans to plant olive saplings on 1,500 hectares of land in Potohar region and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces in the next three years.
About 800,000 wild olive trees already grow in various parts of Pakistan, statistics show. These trees were grafted to make them fruit bearing but only a few thousand of them have successfully produced olive crops. “There were policy flaws in the grafting of wild olive trees; therefore the project could not yield desired results,” said Goraya.
With high global demand and rising prices for edible oils in the international market, Pakistan last year imported edible oil worth $2.5 billion. “The import of edible oil may jump to $4 billion by 2016 if Pakistan fails to increase yield of its own edible oil,” Goraya said.
At the moment, total domestic consumption of edible oil in Pakistan is around 1.9 million tonnes, out of which 1.3 million tonnes is imported from abroad. Goraya said that precious foreign exchange could be saved if olive cultivation is stepped up in Pakistan and the country begins processing its own olive oil to help reduce oil imports.
Currently the major olive oil producing countries in the world are Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Syria and Turkey.
Shehbaz Ahmed Warraich, dean of the faculty of crop and food sciences at the University of Arid Agriculture in Rawalpindi, said that Pakistan has more land available for cultivation of olive trees than the total cultivated land of major olive oil producing countries in the world.
But “Pakistan is neither going to convert all its agricultural land into olive orchards nor is there need of it,” he said. “If we use our agricultural land for plantation of olives, we may face shortages of wheat and rice.”
PLANTING ON WASTELAND
Many olive saplings are being planted on wasteland, not currently used for agricultural production, he said, and farmers are being advised and trained to cultivate olives on marginal land.
Warraich said that Pakistan has over 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) of wasteland suitable for olive cultivation, and could eventually produce around 1.84 million tonnes of olive oil a year if those areas were planted to olive groves. That would be enough oil to easily meet domestic consumption needs, he said.
He said olive growing is most suitable for arid and semi-arid areas because the plants need little water to grow and can also survive sweltering heat.
Farmers in potential olive cultivation areas are being supplied with olive saplings free of cost, for an area of two to three acres, by the government. Pakistani agriculturalists and scientists believe that the country could be one of the major olive oil producing countries by 2020 if all the conceived projects are effectively implemented.
Aamir Saeed is a journalist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at email@example.com.