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The declining trend of cotton production in Pakistan continues. Early estimates suggest that cotton production would be around 7 million bales this year against the target of 11 million bales. The story was not any different from last year’s when production stood at 9.2 million against the target of 15 million bales. The core of the problems is in the seed – its quality, technology and supply chain issues are adversely affecting the yield of the crop.

Meanwhile, better seed varieties in maize, rice and to an extent in sugarcane are resulting in conversion of cotton crop area. Over the last decade, the cotton acreage is reduced to almost half in the Punjab whereas it has remained fairly stable in Sindh in the last decade. Pakistan textile industry’s cotton usage is estimated at 15 million bales and any shortfall has to be covered by imports. There is an external trade opportunity loss in this cotton phenomenon.

Back in the 1990s, Pakistan cotton industry was doing fairly well, as the domestic cotton seed research was robust. Central Cotton Research Institute (CCRI) Multan was doing a good job. In 2000s, Bollgard 1 was illegally introduced in Pakistan (smuggled through India). It gave good results in the start and the seed was reused for many years without requisite stewardship. That has resulted in lowering the resistance of the seed against pests, adverse climate, and other factors. Meanwhile, like many other public sector institutions, CCRI Multan derailed and its capacity of doing research deteriorated.

Bollgard 1 was genetically modified variety and was required to be closely monitored to make sure its resistance against pests and other factors kept on evolving; but in Pakistan nothing of that sort took place. At the same time, hybrid seed technology in maize is thriving in Pakistan. It is important to note that the success of maize is purely driven by the private sector with no role of government whatsoever. In cotton, government somehow remained an intruder.

The other difference is that in maize, seed must be changed every year and growers must buy from multinational sellers. In case of cotton, same seed can be used for multiple years. In many economies where GMO varieties are used in cotton, the growers pay technology fee to the multinational seed companies, and these companies continue to provide stewardship to withstand pest attacks and to build resistance against climate impacts. Intellectual property (IP) rights are weak in Pakistan and that has proved to be detrimental for cotton crop.

The other problem for cotton crop is that toxic chemicals which were used in abundance to kill pests are now being tightly regulated. Over the period of time world (especially the EU) has banned such chemicals and their production has declined as a result. This issue is mostly tackled through the use of bio technology in the world. That is missing in Pakistan. Now, neither those chemicals are coming to Pakistan nor biotechnology is being used. The outcome is simply a woeful decline in cotton production.

It’s natural for farmers to move toward the other crops – be it maize, rice or sugarcane. In all these crops there is some improvement in the technology. The yields have moved up. Private sector has increased inroads in these crops. Now with this worse performance for last two consecutive years, even fewer farmers may opt for cotton.

Some say there is a ray of hope. Punjab University’s research wing has developed a domestic version: Bollgard 2. Some local companies are planning to introduce it. But serious people in the business think that this may not succeed. Firstly, it’s an imitation, not an original seed. Secondly, even if it is of top quality, the stewardship would be missing.

The main problem in Pakistan is that there are too many breeders. There is no proper variety. The decline of CCRI was due to opening of seed shops by scientists themselves across the country. Back in days, there used to be around 20 varieties. Now these are in excess of 200. With such a high number, there are no checks and balances.

When there were 20-odd varieties, protocols were maintained in research and development. Now it’s too big a number to manage and it’s hard to separate good from the bad genes. There are too many varieties with no certifications. There is no incentive for good players to scale up. Vested interests are in seed market who wield political influence for the market to not grow. This has to change. Else, cotton would be a crop of yesterday.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020

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Ali Khizar

Ali Khizar is the head of research at Business Recorder,