NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 21

Pakistan’s ailing cotton economy

Pakistan’s cotton economy has been on the decline for the last many years. Pakistan missed the cotton production target in 2019-20. The situation is not different in the current 2020-21 season. According to a report, cotton production in Pakistan witnessed a massive decline of about 35% to 5.57 million bales by the end of January 2021, the lowest in 30 years.

The reasons for the decline in cotton production are many and varied. These include a creeping shrinkage in the cotton cultivation area, denial of reasonable returns to farmers, use of poor seeds and pesticides, coupled with harsh weather and pest attacks.

In cotton production, the most important factor is the quality of seeds. Mostly, BT cotton is cultivated across the country, which is based on outdated first-generation BT technology against which insects have developed resistance. According to a 2019-20 report from the Punjab Agricultural Extension Department, more than 80% area of Multan, Vehari and Bahawalpur districts were infected with pink bollworm. For the last three years, the attack of pink bollworm, along with mealy bug has increased.

According to the Pakistan Cotton Ginners Association, cotton production fell by 20.26 per cent to 8.303 million bales till Jan 15 this season against 10.456 million bales in the same period last year. In its fortnightly report, the PCGA said that the production of cotton bales went down by 2.119 million in the current season. According to the PCGA figures, Punjab suffered cotton production losses by up to 22.99%, followed by Sindh with 16.09%.

Punjab produced 4.859 million bales against last year’s 6.325 million bales, showing a shortfall of 1.454 million bales. Sindh produced 3.467 million bales against last year’s 4.139 million bales, with a shortfall of 0.665 million bales. Till January 15, ginning factories produced 8.22 million bales during the current season. The textile sector and exporters purchased 7.34 million bales and 55,984 bales, respectively. A total of 232 factories remained functional in Sindh and Punjab.

In Punjab, only two districts, Layyah 35.4% and Mianwali 100%, showed an increase in production. The rest of the districts reported a shortfall in production, which include Multan 12.2%, Lodhran 72.28%, Khanewal 50.78%, Muzaffargarh 0.30%, Dera Ghazi Khan 47.5%, Rajanpur 75.4%, Vehari 48.85%, Sahiwal 31.89%, Pakpattan 81.18%, Okara 100%, Toba Tek Singh 25.7%, Faisalabad 27.54%, Jhang 16.56%, Bhakkar 100%, Rahimyar Khan 90.57%, Bahawalpur 75.18 % and Bahawalnagar 35.85%. In Sindh, only Naushero Feroz district increased the crop size to 15.17%. The rest recorded a decline in production.

Growers and ginners blame the government policies for the crop failure and unabated decline in the under-cultivation area and production. Cotton is a major cash crop but growers do not get the incentives and facilities they expect from the government. An unfavourable combination of circumstances has forced the growers to divert to other crops.

Pakistan has been short of more than six million bales from the target in 2019-20, which is equal to a financial loss of $6 billion. The area under cultivation has fallen by 12% in the last five years. During 2019-20, an area of 2.5 million hectares was cultivated against the target of 2.9 million hectares, with the hope of production of 12.72 million bales in the coming season.

The farmers are replacing the area under cotton cultivation with sugarcane and rice for better returns, especially in Punjab, which contributes 65% of the total cotton area. The government is providing support to farmers involved in the production of wheat (Rs 19.3 billion), rice (Rs 11.4 billion), and sugarcane (Rs 4 billion) but the cotton crop is neglected.

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.

Pakistan is the 5th largest cotton producer in the world and cotton products account for more than 50 per cent of the foreign exchange earnings of the country. Pakistan used to export 2-2.5 million bales but now the country depends upon imports. As Pakistan’s “silver plant”, cotton is the lifeline of the textile sector, which has 55 to 60pc contribution in overall exports of the country.

It is time to pay attention to the problems of the ailing cotton economy. Some agricultural scientists are said to be working on ways to control pests and diseases.

The Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (CEMB), Punjab University in Lahore, has gained approval for double and triple gene BT cotton for commercial use. The modified CLCV (cotton leaf crumple virus) resistant variety will also be available to farmers soon. Research on techniques against pink worm infestation is also under way.

As per media reports, the government has decided to give subsidies to the cotton growers. It also intends to implement the Seed Act, which will not only increase the cultivation area through crop zoning to stop farmers from switching to other crops, but also make it more profitable for farmers. A programme has been initiate jointly by the Cotton Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Cotton Research Institute Multan, Ayub Agricultural Research Institute, and Pakistani universities to cross varieties from China and Pakistan cotton as well as American cotton for a combination of desirable qualities, such as a high yield, quality fiber, resistance to pests, and resilience under diverse weather conditions.