Is Pakistan travelling towards the end of its cotton production? It seems so if the last few years of dropping acreage, dipping per-acre yield, sinking national production and climatic impact are any indication. The quality of the yield is an entirely different topic.

The current year’s statistics further bear testament to this theory. According to the Pakistan Cotton Ginning Association (PCGA), the arrival of cotton by October 18 has fallen by a whopping 39.24 per cent (2.6 million bales against 4.4m last year). The official expectation for this year is 8.5m billion bales against a target of 10.89m.

On its part, the PCGA believes that last year’s production was 8.5m bales and not 9.1m bales as claimed by the Pakistan Economic Survey. The ginners think that the country may end up producing 6.5m to 7m bales — far less than half of the requirement of the industry.

The ginners think that the country may end up only producing 6.5m to 7m bales this year — far less than half of the requirement of the industry

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 complicates the picture as well.

As far as production is concerned, the last three years reinforce the assumption. In 2017-18, the country almost touched 12m bales — after many years of abysmal performance — before sliding down to 9.8m next year, 9.1m last year and 8.5m bales this year. The per-hectare yield during this period fell from 753kg in 2017-18 to 618kg last year; it will surely go down further this year. While all these figures are official, farmers and other stakeholders contend that the actual numbers are far lower.

Against the backdrop of resources committed to cotton crop, the failure becomes even more colossal. Almost half of the scientists’ community in Pakistan is dedicated to saving it; Punjab alone has four institutes and another one is being built in Rajanpur. The federal government is running a Rs2.3 billion cotton seed project, a Rs592m Pink Bollworm project and a Rs6bn white fly plan. But the crop is sliding down in every imaginable way.

Why have all these efforts been unable to bolster cotton production? The answer has two prongs: firstly, competing crops — sugarcane, rice and corn — have been exceptionally successful through technological improvement, seed development and better farm practices. All these factors have been missing in the case of cotton that survives on archaic technology, fossilised farm practices, deep confusion in the seed sector with the industry impervious to its plight and the government groping in the dark.

Take the example of sugarcane. In the last ten 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.

Similarly, 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 common thread among all three competing crops is industry-led growth that brought improvement in seeds, developed a field force to train farmers and ensured better rates for produce. These crops have not seen government intervention even at a minute level, let alone at the scale of cotton.

Industry-led initiatives are completely missing in the case of cotton. Rather, the industry thinks it can survive on imported lint and hence sees no reason to waste time and resources on cotton fields. The farmers are shifting to more lucrative crops that are easier to grow than cotton.

What makes cotton failure almost certain is the scientists’ inability to catch early warning signs of climatic change and prepare accordingly. The cane, corn and rice models can be replicated for cotton as well. The industry must be incentivised to play its role in saving and improving the crop. The public sector should only facilitate the industry through measures such as meeting long-standing requirements of zoning and better regulation of the seed sector.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 2nd, 2020

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