NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 5

Cotton Day marked in country, but with a big pinch of salt

Like other countries and regions of the globe, World Cotton Day was also marked in Pakistan on October 7, but with a big pinch of salt. A webinar, organised by the University of Agriculture Faisalabad on the date, was informed by agriculturists that cotton production had shrunk by more than 60 per cent, from 14.81 million bales to 5.65 million bales, in the country during the last decade.

This year, the theme for World Cotton Day was “There’s More to Cotton Than You Think”. The history of the special day is not very old. The first World Cotton Day was marked in Geneva in 2019, on the recommendations of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) and World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Cotton-4 nations — Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mali –made an official proposal to the United Nations General Assembly on August 30, 2019, for the establishment of a World Cotton Day, which underlines the importance of cotton as a worldwide resource. The Bremen Cotton Exchange, as one of the world’s largest cotton organisations, also supported the idea of World Cotton Day.

According to Prof. Dr. Iqrar Ahmad Khan, vice chancellor, University of Agriculture Faisalabad, Pakistan is the fifth-largest producer of cotton in the world now. It also has the third-largest cotton spinning capacity in Asia, after China and India, with thousands of ginning and spinning units, producing textiles from cotton. Pakistan is also the second-largest producer of ‘Better Cotton’ globally, says the agriculturist. However, he is saddened by the fact that cotton production has hit an all-time low lately, though the crop was once considered the lifeline of the country’s farmers and a source of raw material for the textile companies. During the last decade, the country’s position in cotton production shifted from fourth to fifth in the world, he regrets. He believes that poor pest management, a shift in the cotton area to other crops, climate variability, early sowing, poor quality BT cotton seed, traditional methods of spraying and a gap between farmers and the agriculture extension staff have been possible reasons behind low cotton yield reduction despite the introduction of genetically modified varieties.

With each passing year, cotton production has shrunk, and the authorities concerned have failed to take corrective measures. As per official statistics, the country’s annual cotton production fell from 11.9m bales in FY18 to 9.17m bales in FY20. With annual demand hovering above 15m bales, the textile sector has been forced to import the raw material. Currently, a total of 528 ginning factories are operational in the country, including 193 in Sindh and 335 in Punjab.

Dr. Iqrar Ahmad says that in the last five years, the area under cotton had fallen from 2.9m to 2.5m hectares. It went down further by 4pc this year if official statistics are to be believed. In between, the yearly fluctuation (-14pc in 2016-17, and -12pc in 2018-19) in acreage complicated the picture as well.

Pakistan Cotton Ginners Association Chairman Dr Jassu Mal told Cutting Edge by telephone that the drastic reduction in the cotton crop cost Pakistan over $8b per annum in lower GDP per million bales of cotton, and $2b for the year 2020 in additional imports. One of the reasons for the reduction in cotton yield is the replacement of the crop by sugarcane due to flawed policies of successive governments. In the last 10 years, its yield has improved on average from 500 maunds per acre to 750 maunds, and sucrose recovery from seven to over 10pc. Its area in Punjab alone improved from 1.5m acres to the current 1.9m acres.

According to a report released by Cotton Research Institute, there are 95 sugar mills functional in the country and 40 are owned by politicians. In order to meet the demands of the increasing number of sugar mills in Punjab, sugarcane cultivation is being promoted despite the heavy water requirement compared to cotton which needs less irrigation. Due to excessive production of sugarcane in Punjab’s cotton zone, high relative humidity is created which is the main culprit that promotes pest attacks on the cotton crop in the region.

Also, rice has seen a change of fortune when its production jumped from 15 maunds per acre a decade ago to 23 maunds as seed and practices improved. The success of hybrid rice is even bigger. Rice now sits on 6m acres in Punjab against 5m acres — an improvement of 20pc — as farmers started making money. Corn occupies over 2.3m acres as compared to 0.9m acres a decade ago owing to the increase in price and purchase quantity by the poultry and silage industry. Its per-acre yield jumped to over 100 maunds. The corn crop has almost swept cotton away in the central Punjab region: Vehari, Lodhran and Sahiwal.

The Agriculture University vice chancellor, however, has good news to share with Cutting Edge. He says that a plan to revive cotton production has been developed by the UAF to improve pest management, a combination of whitefly control strategy and updated curriculum of universities in connection with current agricultural issues faced by the farming community.

He says that due to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government intervention, 8.46 million bales of cotton are likely to be achieved during the current season.

Quoting the data available with the university, he says that cotton production in the province is expected to touch 4.5m bales with an increase of 8.5 per cent, compared with the last year production. He says that year 2020 witnessed 398.6mm rainfall, which caused a devastating impact on cotton, whereas this year the rainfall remained 78.6mm, which improved the prospect of overall production. He says the government had set an intervention price of Rs 5,000 per 40kg, which encouraged the farmers to invest in the cash crop and grow cotton on more land.