For Nadir Shah, potatoes have been a blessing – and also a curse.
Two years ago, as increasingly extreme weather battered his wheat crop, the 34-year-old mountain farmer turned to growing potatoes, an experimental crop in the Gobar valley, Pakistan, where he lives.
The switch was a huge success. His usual harvest of 10 tonnes of wheat and animal fodder per hectare soared to 55 tonnes, and Shah’s income shot up as well, allowing him to make plans for the first time to enrol his oldest child in private school.
The problem is that his neighbours did the same thing. Now, in the valley where Shah lives, 60% of people grow potatoes, and as a result potato prices are plunging, seed is getting ever-more costly and no one is quite sure how to store or get to market the area’s huge harvest.
Finding ways to adapt to increasingly erratic and severe weather is crucial for farmers in Pakistan and around the world. But adaptation efforts can have unforeseen consequences, creating new problems that also require solutions.
In Pakistan’s north-west Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the emerging potato problem in Gobor valley is particularly acute because of the imposing 8km (five-mile) Lowari tunnel, which lies between the region’s potato farmers and the nearest markets in Punjab province. At the moment, the road tunnel is under repair and is open just two days a week.
“The trucks and businessmen have to wait in a queue at the tunnel for five days a week to get the produce to the local markets,” said Amir Hazar, a retired school teacher and farmer. Potato buyers trying to reach farmers face the same barrier.
The transport problems, combined with lack of cold storage in the area, have left 20% of Hazar’s potato crop damaged, he said. “The potato is a perishable crop and we can’t keep it in the field or our homes more than a month.”
Once, cooler temperatures might have allowed farmers to store some of their crop for seed and to eat at home. But warmer temperatures mean that potatoes held back from market now often rot.
Shah, who earned 80,000 rupees ($793) from his most recent crop, said half his windfall may need to go to pay for seed potatoes, which are selling at exorbitant prices thanks to soaring demand.
He urged the provincial government and NGOs to help farmers build cold storage facilities in Gobor, one of 24 valleys in Chitral district.
Ibrahim Mughal, the chairman of Agri Forum Pakistan, a body representing Pakistani farmers, estimates Pakistan will produce more than 6m tonnes of potatoes this year, while consuming only 3m tonnes.
“The surplus production has hit the farmers hard as it has brought down the price to 4,000 rupees ($39.50) per 120kg against 6,000 rupees ($59.30) per 120kg last year,” he said.
He said middlemen and businessmen were also “slaughtering the growers” by purchasing excess potatoes from farmers at low rates and then banking them in cold storage facilities, which the farmers lack.
The aim, he said, is for “the businessmen (to) create an artificial shortage of the product in the market in next two to three months and (then) start selling it for over 6,000 rupees per 120kg”.
Rao Muhammad Ajmal Khan, parliamentary secretary for the ministry of industries and production, said the government should make arrangements to export the surplus crop to Russia, the Middle East and Gulf countries, to earn foreign exchange and keep the price stable in local markets.
Provincial governments in potato-growing areas, especially Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces, should help growers to build local cold storage facilities to protect farmers from exploitation by middlemen, and to keep prices stable in local markets, he said.