THE future of the Bt cotton variety seems to be hanging in the balance in Sindh as farmers struggle with declining acreage in one of their major cash crops.
From water shortages, increased pest attacks, adulterated seeds and lower-than-before prices, growers find it hard to keep pace with cotton sowing.
Until a decade back cotton producers were in a state of euphoria as Bt cotton was giving them productivity as high as 60-70 maunds per acre. Bt cotton’s most attractive feature for growers was its immunity to pink bollworm attack, with the pest becoming almost extinct between 2006-2014.
If sugar cane and paddy perform well growers may completely switch over from cotton to these two crops
In Sindh, growers were cultivating an Australian Bt cotton variety known as CRY1 which had been brought unofficially into the province. The Chinese CRY2 variety was officially obtained by Punjab.
According to Mir Amanullah Talpur, a progressive cotton grower from Umerkot, the characteristics of these two varieties differed with CRY1 being more suited to Sindh’s climatic conditions.
Mr Talpur is said to have been amongst the first adaptors of the Australian variety: growing the CRY1 Bt variety during 1999-2000.
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He believes that initially, owing to the pink bollworm’s inability to attack the cotton plant, growers had a field day in terms of per acre productivity while ginners offered better prices.
But then adulterated seed started flooding the market from Punjab and degeneration in seed set in. Mr Talpur observes that currently a hybrid of CRY1 and CRY2 is grown under the Bt cotton name, adding that pink bollworm tolerant varieties need to be introduced to save Sindh’s cotton sector from suffering badly.
In 2009-10 Sindh produced 4.2m bales in 1.56m acres under cotton cultivation against a sowing target of 1.6m acres. At the time Sindh increased its sowing target to 1.6m acres from 1.56m acres, a target that has remained consistent since then.
Even though the cotton sowing target was revised downward to 1.5m acres during the current crop season (2018-19), around 30 per cent of the sowing target remains unfinished as per figures available with the cotton crop controlling authorities. Last year 94pc of the target was achieved.
Farmers like Sindh Abadgar Board Vice President Mahmood Nawaz Shah consider declining acreage to be a serious warning sign for the province’s cotton sector.
He opines that researchers should to put their foot down: “Cotton has been promoted in Kotri barrage’s command area in the recent past. Growers were comfortably growing the crop when issues such as water shortages, adulterated seeds and susceptibility to pests started hampering per acre yields. The situation has become quite alarming.”
Water issues have already had a negative impact on this year’s cotton cultivation owing to unavailable irrigation water flows in the early Kharif period (March-April) when cotton is grown in lower Sindh: areas that are fed by left bank canals of the Sukkur and Kotri barrages.
As a result cotton producers have opted for late and non-Bt varieties like CRIS129, ARI, NIA. According to figures by the agriculture department an increase in area under non– Bt varieties — from 184,835 acres last year to 237,221 acres this year — has been noted.
A Matiari based progressive cotton grower, Haji Nadeem Shah says that while he is comfortable with his 2018-19 per acre productivity in cotton, water shortages made him lose around 130-acres of cotton acreage. He concludes that this year the crop so far has fetched a better price (between Rs3,500 to Rs4,000 per 40kg ) as compared to last year.
After achieving a peak of 4.2m cotton bale production, Sindh’s production now varies between 3.4m- 3.7m bales which include arrivals from Balochistan and Punjab in Sindh’s ginning factories.
From the growers’ point of view cotton starts to pay returns once picking starts whereas another summer crop like paddy would need around 120 days to mature for market.
Sugar cane needs around 12 months to be ready for harvesting and is dependent upon payment from millers. With the advantage of early picking, cotton is still lags behind these two crops.
According to Hidayatullah Bhutto from the Pakistan Central Cotton Committee’s research institute in Sakrand, the management of cotton crop is difficult and it demands growers’ seriousness. For indigenous varieties of cotton soil quality must be maintained and weeds controlled after 24 hours of sowing to ensure proper germination of cotton plants.
As long as Bt cotton remained untouched by pests and productivity issues growers would plant the crop year round and keep getting pickings. This is no longer the case as cotton has lost its productivity potential.
Since cotton remains vulnerable to multiple issues, says Mahmood Nawaz Shah, authorities should take research and development oriented initiatives to arrest decline in the crop.
He believes that currently despite facing serious problems in sugar cane and paddy growers are reluctant to switch over to cotton. This proves if sugar cane and paddy perform well growers may completely switch over from cotton to these two crops.
Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2018