Pakistan is going to miss it’s cotton target for the fifth consecutive year this season. Islamabad has revised its production estimate from 13.2 million bales to 12 million. However, the official forecast is higher than the estimate of the Pakistan Cotton Ginning Association (PCGA) which has put the figure lower, at 11.7 million bales.
Though the crop in Punjab is recovering from massive virus (CLCV) attack in the last two months, the extent of its recovery is difficult to gauge at this stage.
It would largely depend on the farmers’ behaviour; whether they allow enough time to the resurgent crop to mature, and risk delaying wheat sowing – the most secure investment in the farming sector at this stage.
The Punjab Agriculture Department had been pressing cotton farmers to keep applying urea and other nutrients so that the crop survives the CLCV attack and re-grows. The regrowth has started and the plant size in most of the areas has reached two to 2.5 feet – al most half of normal height. Most of the crop is thus back to square one: these plants would take time to develop branches, flowers, bowls and canopy – a three month process, which would take the crop into late December or early January and eat into wheat sowing time span. The farmers would only wait if the cotton rates remain high. But in that case, the country would suffer on the wheat front.
If the rates drop, the farmers would plough up the cotton to go for wheat, leaving the country in a deficit of three million bales short, requiring import of Rs60 billion at the current price factor. The country would thus either lose on cotton (cash crop) or on food security (wheat) – a precarious condition either way.
There is a host of official explanations of what went wrong to the crop this year, including inclement weather, massive attack by the cotton curl leave virus (CLCV), absence of any virus resistant variety, pesticides failure and uncertain genetic material. This is fifth year running when the target has been missed. All these years have had different reasons for crop failure, and, to make the matter worse, none of them has been addressed so far. The government simply does not seem to have a policy for a crop that contributes to 70 per cent of exports.
One of the permanent causes of crop failure has been the seed sector, which, unfortunately, still remains as neglected as it had been five years ago. Over these five years, the share of so-called Bt cotton seed, which is at the heart of current crisis, has risen from a paltry 10 per cent to 70 per cent. Interestingly, none of the 33 varieties of Bt cottonseed, being sold in the market, is approved one. The situation is allowed to prevail despite the fact that a recent study by the Punjab government revealed that only eight of 33 marketed varieties have Bt expression in them. The rest were fake.
The government has neither approved any Bt cotton variety nor enacted laws to check the fake ones. The officially approved 16 traditional varieties are sown only on 20 per cent of 3.2 million hectors.
No one really knows what is being sown in the name of Bt cotton. Since no seed has been approved, naturally no protocol – training of farmers on how to grow and protect the crop – has been developed. The BT gene normally disappears from seeds within three years and exposes the crop to every kind of disease.
No official knows for sure for how many years a particular seed is being sown, and what are its strengths and weaknesses. These factors have made the crop a “total uncertainty.” Another area, where the government has failed is the pesticides front. This year, none of the available pesticides has been able to check the virus attack in any part of Punjab. The sheer extent of damage tells the story of pesticides failure.
According to press reports, the virus affected 90 to 95 per cent crop in districts Burewala, Khanewal, Leyah,Vehari and adjoining areas. In Lodhran, Rajanpur, Muzafargarh and Pakpatten, the damage was around 90 per cent. In D. G. Khan, Khanewal and Bahawalpur about 70 per cent hot spots were found and Faisalabad, Rahimyar Khan, Mianwali, Okara, and Bahawalnagar witnessed 40 to 55 per cent infection. No where in these districts application of pesticides succeeded. To make the matter worse, the virus has also reached non-core areas likes Faisalabad, generating more fears.
The situation shows vulnerability of the crop and the level of government preparedness in dealing with emergencies. So far, officially suggested recipe has been application of fertiliser and nutrients so that the crop re-grows once the virus (CLCV) completes its lifecycle. The re-grown crop now has its cost-benefit ratio for farmers and the country.
Over the past five years, the federal and provincial governments simply looked other way as the Bt cotton share in cultivation multiplied, apparently oblivious of its rising costs in the absence of required official intervention.