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In a televised interview last week, the Special Advisor to PM on Agriculture noted that the “cotton crop is witnessing a quantum jump in productivity, never before witnessed in history”. If national average yield manages to land anywhere over 825 kg per hectares, it will break all past records. Could it be true?

Earlier, BR Research had noted that “if the momentum of cotton arrivals as reported by Pakistan Cotton Ginners Association maintains itself, the country could ‘theoretically’ report national output in the vicinity of 13 million bales”. That ‘outlandish’ figure is based on historic trend of cotton arrivals, as only 20 percent of seasonal arrivals are reported by mid-September.

Later in the same interview, SAPM explained that the 13 million bales estimate appears unlikely, considering that area under cultivation is lowest in 40 years, and the final estimate may clock in around 10 million bales. Given cotton’s poor luck in recent years, that is still an extremely impressive performance. All earlier forecasts of import demand for raw cotton – including those by BR Research – will get thrown out of the window if the country manages to pull off even 10 million bales. Unfortunately, the SAPM did not explain why the cotton arrivals momentum witnessed so far will not continue in coming months.

One explanation making rounds in cotton circles indicates that arrivals may witness an early peak than in the past. Why? Historically, cotton arrivals in Sindh peak by end of September, while season’s highest arrival in Punjab are witnessed by October end. This has been in line with the harvest patterns in various regions, as harvest initially begins in South and then continues northwards.

But why this might change in the ongoing season? First, reports from the farm indicate that many areas witnessed early sowing of cotton by February, even in Punjab. If the crop is sown earlier, it is only logical that it would be ready for harvest earlier as well. But more significant is the sowing pattern within each province.

As PCGA report suggests, southern Sindh districts such as Badin and Mirpurkhas may have witnessed a sharp decline in cotton cultivation. Although official data from Crop Reporting Services, Sindh is unavailable, consider that to-date arrivals in Mirpurkhas already stand at 75 percent of peak historic production. If the trend holds in central Sindh as well – primarily Sanghar – crop harvest in Sindh may have very well peaked already. Cotton watchers will note that historically, district Sanghar has accounted for as much as 50 percent of Sindh’s output in recent years.

More importantly, between 3rd and 18th September, fortnightly flows reported by Sindh declined by 61 percent! In fact, cumulative arrivals in five districts of Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas, Sanghar, Nawabshah, Jamshoro and Badin fell by as much as 82 percent during this short period, with the decline in fortnightly flow partly mitigated by northern districts such as Khairpur, Ghotki, Naushero Feroze, and Sukkur which showed modest growth. If this deadly trend continues, output in Sindh may clock in at no more than 2.5 million bales, which will put a sharp dampener in the latest optimism.

Which means Punjab will bear the brunt of pulling the national total past the finish line. Unfortunately, arrivals in the northern province have also plateaued at half a million bales between 3rd and 18th September PCGA reports. While this is alarming, it may not necessarily be reflective of a trend yet. Why?

Although early sowing and early harvest may also hold true for Punjab, it is important to emphasize that cotton sowing in the province this year has remained restricted to “core cotton acres”, usually synonymous with districts in Multan, Bahawalpur, and D.G. Khan divisions. Although crop yield even in core cotton belt has been battered in recent years, all conversations with farmers indicate that the weather has been extremely friendly, with statements like “such lush fields have not been witnessed for at least past 10 years”.

Anecdotal accounts notwithstanding, yield in core cotton belt of Punjab has averaged above 700kg per hectare in good years, and may leapfrog by as much as 10-15 percent if weather remains just as friendly. That’s a big if (and it is best that researchers steer clear of fancying themselves as weather experts). Already, farmers report that pink boll worm attacks have begun after delayed monsoon rains in many areas.

Cotton crop’s fate then remains very much uncertain. However, what is indeed clear that all past predictions have come to naught. Officialdom too has not been able to explain why its “subsidies on seed, fertilizer, and pesticides helped improve early arrivals by 160 percent”, but the application of same inputs will not help maintain the momentum going forward.

That cotton arrivals have only been preponed remains a real risk. Government should still feel free to claim victory, considering how miserable crop’s performance has been over last six seasons, and the current season is anything but. But it would do well to pay heed to the exaggerated effects of climate on this highly temperamental crop, which seemingly can take cotton farmers from rag to riches and back again overnight.

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