It is that time of the year again. Worst fears of lowest national cotton output since 1984 have been confirmed, kickstarting the seasonal laments over how Pakistan’s prime cotton acres have been takeover by lesser crops. The record must be set straight for posterity – as to how increasing area under cotton would be a bad idea, and even worse policy vision.
For past five years, national acreage under cotton has averaged at 2.5 million hectares, levels last seen 30 years ago in 1986-1991. That was also the time when Pakistan had one of the highest crop productivity levels in the cotton growing world – second only to China. This year, national average yield may close below 450 kg per ha. That means Pakistan may still be among the top 5 cotton producing regions in the world, but its yield shall rank at 39th position globally.
So, does Pakistan have anything in common with the rest of the cotton producing planet anymore? Yes. Four out of five largest cotton producing countries – including Pakistan – have seen area under crop decline by more than one-fifth. In fact, in the last 30 years, global acreage under cotton has fallen by nearly 10 percent, with the largest decline witnessed in China at -50 percent, and USA at -30 percent (see illustration 1.2, source: USDA).
It is not that cotton is any less popular – after all, global cotton output has grown by over 30 percent in as many years. The decline in cotton acres has come on the back of dramatic gains in crop productivity, which has increased 5 times for Brazil, 2.1 times for China, 1.3 times for US – as well as for world average (see illustration 1.1, source: USDA).
So why do domestic commentators and policymakers continue to lament acreage? It appears because – as in most things – Pakistanis borrow their agricultural wisdom from the neighbour they love to hate: India.
As per USDA forecast, in 2021, Pakistan’s cotton yield will rank below India’s for the first time since independence. Similarly, while Pakistan’s output has fallen by more than half since 1991, India’s has grown by 3.15 times. Surely, its policymakers must be doing something right.
Right? Wrong. Indian output has grown largely because the country has doubled its cotton acreage in the last three decades, bringing more area under cotton than total area under crop in China, USA, Pakistan, and Brazil combined. In fact, the country has converted more area to cotton during this period than to rice, corn, and sugarcane together.
More acres mean India remains the world’s largest producer of cotton, a position it has (mostly) held on to for half century, together with its 25 percent share in global production. All this even as its cotton yield features nowhere among top 30 nations and is less than half for the top 17 nations that together produce more than nearly 90 percent of remainder global output (excluding Pakistan, of course).
Today, India accounts for over 40 percent of world’s area under cotton because the central government maintains a strong pro-textile policy. Cotton Corporation of India procures one-fourth of annual production at a guaranteed MSP, effectively ensuring that the spinning industry – second only to China’s in size - never runs out of raw material.
Is Indian cotton policy successful? The cardinal principle of fair trade is that it must be beneficial to both the producer and the consumer. Instead, Indian cotton growers – 85 percent of which own less than 5 acres of land - trade away profitability for a guaranteed selling price that barely compensates them for their cost of production. Another perverse effect of a cotton-centric textile vision is that India has been left behind by Bangladesh and Vietnam in development of its value-added exports segments of garments and apparels (see illustration I.3).
Why are its cotton growers among the poorest? In their struggle to maximize output, cotton growers are forced to apply ever greater volumes of fertilizers and insecticides – a vicious cycle exacerbated by fast changing weather patterns and evolving pest attacks. Between 1995-2016, over three hundred thousand Indian farmers committed suicide due to inability to repay debt – of which over two-thirds were estimated to have planted cottonseed in the last three years or less.
So why has India insisted on doing things differently? It wasn’t always like this. Since 2002, when India officially adopted genetically modified (GM) bt. cotton, national crop yield has grown by at least two-thirds. However, the great leap forward in productivity did not turn out well for the country’s labour-intensive farming (see illustration 1.4).
Because India insists on low cost, grossly subsidized, and a pro-employment agriculture model, the high cost of bio-tech seeds meant farmers persisted with olden ways of re-using seeds, abandoning the stewardship demanded for sustainable success of bt. crop. High cost coupled with growing resistance of pests to first generation bt. variety meant yields suddenly plunged in 2016, worsened by changing climatic patterns across sub-continent. Moreover, environmental advocates have also resisted adoption of second generation bt. crop.
Faced with a downward yield spiral, India is forced to increase the area under cotton to keep its spinning looms running. That means the Cotton Corporation not only must procure the crop at higher than market prices to continue piquing farmers’ interest in an increasingly high-risk (and weather-prone) crop, but it must also supply the crop to spinning industry at lower-than-cost to keep it export-competitive.
For a better part of its independent history, the next-door neighbour has run a state-controlled agricultural model that at its heart focuses on twin goals of food security and employment generation. If Modi government’s farm bills are any guide, that 20th century paradigm is fast running out of steam.
Instead of calling for its replication, industrious farmers this side of the border should be set free to grow crops that offer maximum returns and are best suited to their needs based on changing climate patterns, adequate resource availability and affordability (such as seed, water, nutrients in soil, and pesticides), access to capital, and each farmers’ unique risk appetite. Pakistan must end its obsession: both with India, and its dated model of agriculture; and welcome the fact that cotton acres of the yore are being allocated to a diversified set of crops that offer better returns to growers.