Protecting the overlooked cotton-poor economy

Updated 24 Aug 2020

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The enormous application of old, ineffective, and in some cases adulterated, pesticides on Bt cotton has induced resistance in insects and destroyed the population of eco-friendly insects at a large scale. — Dawn/File
The enormous application of old, ineffective, and in some cases adulterated, pesticides on Bt cotton has induced resistance in insects and destroyed the population of eco-friendly insects at a large scale. — Dawn/File

Pakistan is the fifth-largest cotton producer in the world and cotton products account for more than 50 per cent of the foreign exchange earnings of the country. However, the quality of cottonseed is comparatively overlooked as fibre yield and quality of cotton production are not considered though these are of prime importance to fetch high prices in the market.

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

The farmers are replacing area under cotton cultivation with sugarcane and rice for better incentives, especially in Punjab which contributes 65pc of the total cotton area. The government is providing support to farmers involved in the production of wheat (Rs19.3bn), rice (Rs11.4bn) and sugarcane (Rs4bn) 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.

The land under cultivation has fallen by 12pc in the last five years as sugarcane and rice offer better incentives, especially in Punjab which contributes 65pc of the total cotton area

Mostly Bt cotton is cultivated across the country, which is based on outdated first-generation Bt technology against which insects have developed resistance.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 the 2019-20 report from the Punjab Agricultural Extension department, more than 80pc area of districts Multan, Vehari and Bahawalpur were infected with pink bollworm. For the last three years, the attack of pink bollworm, along with mealybug and whitefly has increased significantly.

The enormous application of old, ineffective, and in some cases adulterated, pesticides on Bt cotton has induced resistance in insects and destroyed the population of eco-friendly insects at a large scale. The frequent use of pesticides has increased the cost of production of cotton which is unaffordable for farmers. This is the right time to introduce the next generation Bt technology along with other genetically resistant resources the way advanced countries have already introduced third-generation products to save the cotton seed industry.

In the current season, the government has reduced germination standards for approved cotton seed from 70pc to 50pc on the request of seed companies who could not meet this criterion due to crop failure as a result of heavy rains, pink bollworm attack and high temperature in 2019. High day temperature above 40°C during June and July and night temperature about 29°C during June-September was one of the main reasons for the low yield of the cotton crop. There should be a paradigm shift in cotton breeding strategy to develop more climate-resilient varieties.

According to the Federal Seed Certification and Registration Depart­ment (FSC&RD), 44,766 tonnes of cottonseed were tested, out of which 68pc was approved for cultivation while the rest was rejected. The private sector has a prominent share of 30,481 tonnes (99pc) of certified and approved seed while the public sector contributed up to 16.27 tonnes in this season. The majority of the farmers in Punjab cultivated four approved varieties IUB-13, NIAB-878, BS-15 and FH-142 covering almost 75pc area while the remaining area is occupied by unapproved varieties. Cotton control ordinance or other regulatory measures should be stringently enforced to deter such unapproved varieties cultivation.

The quality of seeds creates a pathway towards a high yield but the unavailability of good quality cottonseed is the prime reason for poor germination and crop stand failure. Farmers have used high seed rate (more than 10kg per acre) of poor quality seed which only increases their input cost while low plant population is recorded in the fields.

Most of the seed companies have sold out their previously stored cottonseed this season. These seed companies have no proper infrastructure for cottonseed storage. And high intermittent rainfall during March to the first week of June 2020 hindered sowing. The delayed sowing due to rains, particularly in March, and the locust attack in May 2020 also affected the cotton crop.

Every stage of seed production is crucial for quality management. Conditions during development, pre- and post-harvest factors collectively determine the quality of cottonseed. Picking time is a critical factor for quality. Boll opening is the first indication for the time of picking. So, picking can start following a dry weather forecast after the opening of 80pc bolls. If opened bolls are left open for a long-time, they result in the poor quality of both seed and lint.

Seed cotton should be harvested at a low moisture content of up to 12pc as high moisture raises the temperature and accelerates cottonseed deterioration. Dusky cotton bug population predominantly increases in a humid environment before picking and it deteriorates seed quality by reducing oil content, seed weight and ultimately results in the decrease in cotton yield. Most of the seed industry people deal in cotton for both crop and seed purposes, utilising early pickings for lint and later pickings for seed which compromises the quality of cottonseed.

After picking, physical seed quality is affected by improper seed-handling during the ginning process. Seed cotton moisture content below 12pc not only provides good quality lint but also saves seeds from mechanical damage. Subsequently, the time of drying and seed moisture contents just before storage also affects the success or failure of the drying system.

Cottonseed should be dried to 8pc moisture by adopting quick and efficient drying methods. The deterioration process is also species dependent i.e. cottonseed, being high in oil, is more prone to deterioration than cereals. Furthermore, seed storage in conventional bags cannot maintain low moisture levels during storage due to direct contact with ambient relative humidity.

The Federal Seed Certification and Registration Department is responsible for seed inspection and quality assurance while the Punjab Seed Corporation and Sindh Seed Corporation are public entities involved in multiplication and marketing with the collaboration of research institutions. The performance of these public institutions is badly affected due to the lack of trained manpower and stringent public sector policies though they are engaged in a commercial venture in a competitive market. The government must sensitise the concerned departments for the provision of certified cotton seeds to growers to save the textile industry that has a major share in exports.


The writer is an associate professor and the focal person of the Seed Science and Technology Program in the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 24th, 2020