February 9, 2020 (MLN): Pakistan’s cotton crop is in doldrums. From producing record 14 million bales in 2014-15, fourth highest production in the world, the country’s cotton output has plummeted to record lows at just 5m bales in the ongoing fiscal year.
“The list of issues faced by the cotton sector is very long. Lack of support price, ineffective pesticides, absence of zoning laws, rising sugarcane production, changing weather patterns, etc, are some of the many issues that have reduced cotton output in the country over the last few years,” says Pakistan Cotton Ginners Association (PCGA) Chairman Dr. Jassu Mal while speaking to MG News.
As per the PCGA estimates, around 60 percent of the country’s total population is directly or indirectly related to the textile industry. From sowing to value-addition, millions are employed in the cotton chain and the loss of output puts the livelihoods of millions at risk.
Poor zoning laws
Cotton micro-environment has been destroyed by the cultivation of rice, sugarcane, and corn in the adjacent fields. Cultivation of water-heavy crops increases moisture in air making the cotton crop more vulnerable to pest attacks.
“There are no zoning laws in Pakistan. Anyone can sow any crop anywhere. There is no restriction on what you can sow in the fields because there are no zoning laws here,” says Mohammad Aslam, cotton grower from Sanghar. He complains of the government’s lack of attention towards cotton producers.
Zoning laws force farmers in certain areas, based on their geography, to sow certain crops. This allows maximum output from the region. Area under cotton production has declined from 3.1m hectares to just 2.2m hectares. On the other hand, areas under production for maize, seasumum, and rice have increased manifolds.
“For the last decade, more and more farmers have switched to other crops. The government has been a spectator for all this time and made no efforts to promote cotton farming,” he complains.
Sanghar is the leading cotton producing district in Sindh. The city’s entire economy is more or less dependent upon the cotton value chain. “Cotton sowing is done mostly by women in Sanghar. Then there are ginneries where thousands of labours are employed. Most have lost their jobs in the current season because there was significantly less output,” said Aslam. “After this year’s losses, 50pc of the farmers are likely to move away from cotton towards more profitable crops.”
As farmers shift away, areas suited for cotton are now producing wheat and sugar making the cotton flowers more vulnerable to pest attacks. Farmers have no choice but to spray excessive pesticides. This in turn increases cost of production. “Market is flooded with poor quality pesticides. Farmers don’t know which pesticides to buy,” complains Aslam.
“Pest management is not done according to humidity and temperature. Every pest grows and survives at different humidity and temperature. Our [research] departments are totally ignorant and unable to deliver information to farmers that which pest is going to attack and increase in the coming days,” says Dr Mal.
Poor seeds are another problem. India was able to increase cotton output from 12m bales to 30m after acquiring the latest genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds.
“We have to improve our ginning process to the latest ginning process i.e. roller ginning and reduce trash content and contamination. Fifteen years ago, India used to produce the most contaminated cotton in the world; now they have established their own brand Shankar 6 with minimum trash percentage and contamination,” said Dr. Jassu.
One-off seasonal effects
Aside from the long-standing problems plaguing the crop, record-low crop in the ongoing season was mainly due to onslaught from the monsoon rains in the southern Punjab and northern Sindh districts. In addition, the locust attacks were another bane on the crop.
“First it was the rains that flooded the fields just after cotton farmers planted seeds at the start of the season. Then came the locusts destroying roughly 30pc of the cotton crop,” said Mohammad Din, a small cotton grower in the Mirpurkhas district.
The district’s output has fallen by more than 75pc from 128,000 bales last year to just 30,000 in the ongoing season. The district was one of the worst hit by both the rains as well as locusts along the India-Pakistan border. Farmers have complained of the government’s indifference.
“We were not even warned about the incumbent locust attacks. Had we been informed; we would have taken defensive measures. I lost 50pc of my crop in just three days,” said Din.
Stakeholders are demanding from the government to announce a minimum support price immediately. In addition, introduction of latest technology (GMO) seeds and efficient ginning technologies will increase per acre yields and result in lower waste.
“There is utmost need to constitute an autonomous board which should be headed by relevant stakeholders under the direct supervision of the Prime Minister. The board should be responsible for formulating policies to boost the size of the cotton crop in the country,” demanded Dr Jassu.
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