It sounds like yesterday when the Federal Committee on Agriculture (FCA) was brimming with optimism over a rebound of cotton crop after a decade. After reviewing provisional numbers of water availability, the committee announced crop target of 15 million bales (2.55 mn tons), a level not touched even in the best of years of mid-2000s.
The provisional crop estimates are now out, and while the Central Cotton Committee is still adamant to touch 13.5 million bales, market pundits are expecting crop output to clock in at no more than 8.5-9 million bales, level last seen in FY16 when the crop witnessed its worst failure.
So, what has turned cotton's bonhomie into year of gloom? Channel checks indicate that while area under crop sowing in fact recorded a multi-year growth of 19 percent, erratic weather conditions, compounded by ineffectiveness of routine pesticides to counter ever-evolving pests, has led to a crop failure against high expectations.
However, the optimism itself may have misplaced to begin with. For one, it has been repeatedly pointed out in this space that declining acreage under cotton is a symptom and not a cause of cotton's reversal in fortunes. Over the past decade, market distortions – abnormal return on competing crops such as sugarcane against lower return on cotton due to overvaluation of rupee – pushed farmers away from cotton. This was further compounded by cotton crop's inherent sensitivity to pests and weather's vagaries, compared to the higher resilience of crops such as cane which require lower labor involvement and lower application of inputs such as fertilizer and insecticides.
Yet, repeated instances of revival in area under cotton incentivized by government interventions failed to increase output – and prospects of crop failure this season is not first. Recall that cotton's worst performance in over a decade in FY16 came despite acreage of 2.9 million hectares, as overall yield had slumped to 582 kg per hectare. In fact, this may be the fifth consecutive season where annual production remains shy of 12 million bales, and may very well be the lowest in over two decades.
While those in the public sector may wish to blame vagaries of weather, it fails to explain the full picture. For example, while the cotton belt surrounding Multan region appears to have been worst hit by extreme weather events this season, the illustration shows two neighbouring farms in Multan. One, where the crop appears to paint a bleak picture; compared to the one on right of a corporate farm, which depicts a lush green fully blossomed plantation.
Another explanation offered is of white fly invasion during the peak crop maturity season of Aug-Sep, which the pesticides failed to counter. So far, not only the exact impact of white fly attack can be quantified, it equally fails to explain extreme performances by cotton crop in the same vicinity.
Timing and dosage are, of course, of paramount importance in pesticide application. Pulled in different directions by centrifugal force of higher pesticide prices that disincentivize proper application, versus excessive application out of fear of crop failure in past season, farmers rarely manage to get the formula right. Excessive application over the years has also resulted in pests developing resistance in a matter of few generations, a critical issue with scant appreciation in the grower community. This is in addition to spread of Fusarium wilt disease that may have exacerbated damage in some regions.
Nevertheless, if cotton crop indeed experiences widespread failure, its diagnosis requires scientific analysis, even in retrospect. Unless micro/farm-level data is collected through scientific surveys, all conjectures are no more than possibilities based on anecdotes.
Having said that, market-based estimates of 9 million bales domestic production is primarily based on poor crop performance in cotton belt of Punjab, which contributes over two-thirds of output. If the Sindh crop performs as per expectation – crop output of over 3.5 million bales – it only follows that yield in Punjab will record a historic low, possibility lowest in over three decades.
A counter-narrative, however, raises doubt on official data. The perspective insists that government committees overestimate acreage, which in turn reflects poorly on yield. Why the problem is endemic to Punjab province alone, the theory fails to explain, as Sindh continues to post yield of over 1,000 kg per hectare, on average.
Moreover, given that the export growth target of over thirty percent for FY20 is banking on a textile revival, poor cotton output will not only create temporary shortages downstream, but will also restrict efforts to curtail current account adjustment if domestic industry's reliance on imported cotton increases.
The problem no one seems to be talking about is the lack of available stewardship of seeds. Pakistan has over 700 registered seed companies, compared to India which only has 70. Most of the domestic seed companies, however, are, in reality, dealers and distributors, whose operations are restricted to town/tehsil of registration. It is no surprise then that requisite R&D in seed research is virtually non-existent in most of the local firms.
The modus operandi of these seed firms – over three hundred of which are native to south Punjab's cotton belt, is most interesting if it were not downright alarming for sector's future. Called selection mechanism, these firms buy seeds from growers whose crop perform well in past seasons, and then market them under its own brand without any consideration to other factors such as soil and weather suitability.
All over the world, agronomy is no longer an art, but a science, as exact research goes into developing smart farming practices, with a particular focus on seed germination, which is possibly the most critical stage in achieving desired levels of yield. Given extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to changing climate, the need to advocate smart agronomic practices have become most paramount, from deciding the optimal distance between plants to exact plantation date and timing.
While some growers insist that the local cotton crop does not face any challenges at germination stage, evidence speaks otherwise. Higher quantity of seed is often used by growers in anticipation that only few will germinate an absurd practice that runs counter to principles of productivity. Each cotton variety is different, therefore while some may experience early boll formation, others may witness delayed blooming. Uninformed crossing of these varieties by local seed firms (or even growers themselves) creates unique challenges, sometimes even leading to crop failure.
In addition, a lack of appreciation for seed purity and its role in achieving target yield has also exacerbated the situation. Companies such as SANIFA, which provide over 85 percent seed germination and over 90 percent purity maintain optimal level for both metrics These seed breeders have followed international protocol that requires 5-7 years of R&D to develop pure seed variety. This is in sharp contrast to local seed breeders who manage to come up with a new variety every other season. The disastrous outcome of such unregulated activities in the seed sector is now reflecting itself in possible crop failure despite record growth in acreage, in some places at the expense of other high yielding crops.
Pakistan has one unsung success in maize where lack of government intervention and absence of commercial interest for local seed firms created space for multinationals to introduce hybrid seed variety. These companies provided agronomy along with stewardship which allowed productivity and yield to improve over three times in less than 20 years now. It is time that cotton growers learn from the corn experience.