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The comeback kid is not looking so good anymore. Cotton crop – whose output had staged a substantial recovery last year after a precipitous decline for preceding three seasons – is struggling to expand acreage under cultivation. According to the 1st estimate released by the Central Cotton Committee, cotton acreage will barely manage to cross 2 million hectares during the ongoing kharif 2022-23 season, missing the Federal Committee on Agriculture’s target by 21 percent.

Thankfully, the market no longer takes official target into account when setting its expectations. Over the last five seasons, cotton crop has missed the official sowing target by 15 percent on average, missing it straight for at least past 10 seasons (earlier data unavailable).

The first estimate suggests that sown area is up 3.3 percent over last year, which follows four years of continues decline in cotton area from 2.7 million hectares last achieved during the 2017-18 season. In fact – as is now well known - cotton crop acreage has been stuttering for much longer, noting a marked decline from peak level of 3.2 million hectares reached almost two decades ago in 2004 – 05.

But does 3.3 percent rise over last year marks the beginning of the reversal of the tide? It is increasingly hard to claim so. Although the crop has gained 0.2 million hectares in Punjab according to Crop Reporting Services, acreage in Sindh – where productivity is significantly higher - appears to have fallen by 13 percent. If regional yields remain same as last year, national output may barely rise to the challenge, adding just 6 percent more fiber over last year.

However, assuming that yields will remain constant is weak speculation. Revival of farmer interest in the crop indicates that productivity prospects no longer look as bad as in recent years. Although a single year (FY22’s) performance is insufficient evidence, news from the market lends credence to this theory. Slow but concerted efforts to improve seed quality are gradually bearing fruit, which is further corroborated by the crop making back inroads in southern Punjab acres which had it banished over the past decade.

In coming days, if there is no major damage from monsoon floodings, or post-monsoon whitefly and locust attacks, productivity may not necessarily take a significant downturn over last year. Even so, the dramatic fall in prices over last month could mean that the quantum of recovery may not be as large as in last season. In fact, as first picking goes into full swing, depressed market rates could potentially discourage farmers from making further investment in crop such as late application of pesticides, which are becoming pricier with each passing day.

Over the next three months, cotton crop output may continue on path to recovery, but weak improvement in acreage may translate in no more than 0.5 – 0.7 million additional bales (over last year) by season-end. Whether crop output breaks through the 9 million bales barrier will depend on the bonus acres from Balochistan, although chances of provincial production breaching 0.25Mn bales are slim.

Although – given a demand clampdown in textile exporting destinations and skyrocketing inflation back home – is a weak improvement in cotton necessarily a bad thing?

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