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Pakistan’s Cotton Emergency

by Saeed A. Baloch

Can technology solve the problem? Presenting a case study on Pakistan’s bleak cotton crop outlook and a need for new seed technologies.

In Brief

  • The whopping 28 percent decline in cotton yield during the last fiscal year (2015-16) shook everyone from government officials to farmers since it had a disastrous effect on Pakistan’s agriculture economy. While farmers and growers blame the genetically-modified cotton seeds as the major contributing factor, the government officials put the bulk of the blame on weather conditions. However, there seems to be a consensus over new investment requirements in cotton seed technology for smart response of the seed to weather conditions and climatic changes.
  • The rapidly changing weather conditions and low quality of seeds and subsequent decreasing cotton sowing area particularly, in Punjab rightly highlight the need of new technology and development of new seeds to thwart the future threats against the cotton crop including decreasing area under cultivation.

With approximately 28 percent decline in cotton yield, the year 2015-16 proved disastrous for Pakistan’s agriculture economy. Independent agriculture experts and farmers have blamed genetically-modified cotton seeds as the major contributing factor which, they opine, failed to resist the pest attack resulting in colossal loss incurred by the growers’ community, as well as the country’s national economy in terms of decline in textile exports and annual economic growth.

The Federal Finance Minister Ishaq Dar in his budget speech on June 4 this year also admitted on the floor of the National Assembly that cotton crop failure was a setback for the national economic growth in the outgoing fiscal year. The government missed the growth target which was recorded at 4.7 percent as against the set target of 5.5 percent. “During the Financial Year 2015-16 it (economic growth) has been provisionally recorded at 4.7 percent which is highest in the previous eight years. This performance could have been better if the cotton crop had not witnessed the loss of 28 percent due to which national economic growth was reduced by 0.5 percent,” conceded the federal finance minister during his budget speech.

The adverse effects of cotton crop slump

The previous year’s cotton crop slump too, had a very negative impact on the country’s textile sector as it suffered a major blow following paucity of raw materials used in manufacturing of textiles, which in turn, caused a phenomenal loss to country’s textile-related exports. According to data made available by All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA), there has been a shortfall of nearly a 6 million bales against the consumption of 16 million bales of cotton which portrays a very dismal picture of the agriculture economy of the country.

Recently-released data of the Federal Bureau of Statistics shows Pakistan’s textile and clothing sector exports registered a decrease of over 7 percent to $12.46 billion in financial year 2015-16 from $13.45 billion of the financial year 2014-15. Amongst other allied sectors, cotton yarn exports dropped by around 32 percent, in terms of value and 30.3 percent in quantity during the year 2015-16. Likewise, cotton cloth exports fell 9.7 percent in value, exports of raw cotton 48 percent in value and 47 in quantity, knitwear exports declined 1.5 percent and bedwear exports 4 percent whereas towel exports retreated 0.41 percent during the year 2015-16. Keeping in view the above statistics, it wouldn’t be a hyperbole to say that Pakistan’s textile sector, whose share in the overall exports of the country comes to 60 percent has been in shambles in the last couple of years.

Read more: Pakistan at Risk

Since the raw material for the textile and allied sectors directly comes from the agriculture sector, therefore, the losses to the entire textile sector were huge in terms of decline in export volume. During the last few years, as many as 100 mills have closed operations in the country following shortage of local raw materials and high dependence on imports of cotton and other related material, claims Anis ul Haq, Secretary, APTMA Punjab Zone. Incidentals such as high duties and taxes on imports have resulted in inflation of cost of doing business. Such a baffling scenario because of closure of mills has rendered thousands of employees jobless, especially the daily wage earners, in the recent years. Anis ul Haq adds that this situation requires government’s immediate attention before it’s too late.

However, high-ups in the Punjab Agriculture Department have defended their position by shifting the onus to weather conditions describing climatic factors and torrential seasonal rains in Punjab as the prime cause of the cotton production losses in the year 2015-16. But the majority of farmers see this otherwise.

“In 2015-16, cotton was cultivated over an area of six million hectares in Punjab, but due to destruction of the crop plagued by pest attack, the country suffered a loss of approximately 45 percent in terms of crop yield while the Punjab farmers had to suffer PKR 170 billion loss in crop production,’’ says Farooq Bajwa, a farmer and agriculture expert from Bahawalpur. For him, it happened mainly because of the cotton seed failure. Moreover, the Agriculture Department Punjab, who is responsible to facilitate and oversee the issues of the farming community, badly failed to foresee the looming perils of pest attack and to take timely remedial measures to address the issue. Even it (Punjab Agriculture Department) failed to contain the size of losses which could have been easily done by better management techniques and precautionary measures, laments Farooq Bajwa.

Ishaq Dar

“Economic performance could have been better if the cotton crop had not witnessed the loss of 28 percent due to which national economic growth was reduced by 0.5 percent.”

Muhammad Ishaq Dar

The Punjab Agriculture Department officials, however, put bulk of the blame on weather conditions, saying it was the stagnating water following the heavy rainfalls in the Punjab province and not the pest or any sort of viral attack that damaged the crop. But Farooq Bajwa, also a cotton grower, doesn’t agree with this point of view. For him, failure of the agriculture department to provide pest-resistant seeds to the growers led to this devastating state of affairs of the cotton crop in the province. He cites the example of Sindh province and bordering Rajasthan (India) in support of his argument, saying, “In most of areas of Sindh and Rajasthan the cotton production loss was not more than 5 percent as compared to Punjab’s 45 percent despite more or less the same weather and climatic conditions”.

Punjab, being the major cultivator and producer of cotton crop, suffered a major blow of the calamity while Sindh remained almost safe where the losses were minimal, he argues. “Had it been the weather factor, it would have equally impacted the Sindh and Rajasthan areas.” It was the sheer negligence of the functionaries of the agriculture department, obsolete seed technology and complete failure of the genetically-modified cotton seeds sold to farmers by the ginning factories and unauthorized dealers which played havoc with the crop, he alleges.

Waheed Khan, a cotton grower from Khanewal district of the Punjab province, has also expressed similar views, saying the resistance power of available cotton seeds has been dwindling over the passage of time. The seed varieties, currently being sown in Pakistan have been abandoned in the United States and many other countries because of their ineptness to stand guard against the diseases that attack the crop in the wake of the heavy rainfall. While describing the miseries of the farmers, especially the small land holders, Waheed Khan says, they buy seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, and other inputs on credit from the big dealers with the pledge to payback with interest after selling the crop, but all their hopes die when there is no crop. “So at the end, their hands are empty and they are forced to beg their creditors to seek more time for the owed payment. The poor farmer falls victim to this vicious circle of credit which goes on and on…,” Under such circumstances the farmers are left with no option but to change their sowing priorities, he says. “If the government really wants the distracted growers to come back to the cotton growing it will have to introduce new cotton seeds and come up with a better price mechanism to offer the growers proper price of their crop.”



On the other hand, the top brass of the Punjab Agriculture Department have a different story to tell. Dr. Muhammad Anjum Ali, Director General Punjab Agriculture Department (Extension) says the cotton varieties in question are in use of farmers in Punjab and Sindh for the past five years and they have produced excellent results in the financial year 2014-15 with record production of 13.9 million bales of cotton. Hence, it is unfair to attribute seeds as the sole responsible factor to last year’s catastrophic state of affairs. However, he admits that these good seeds didn’t perform well and their efficacy remained below expectation in the year 2015-16 under the unfavorable weather conditions. “Actually last year the varietal response of the seed to the weather conditions and climatic changes was not appropriate or smart enough.” Endorsing the views of some independent experts, he also underscored the need of new investment in cotton seed technology and further suggested that like developed countries Pakistan also needs to bring “Glyphyosate Resistant Genes Technology” for eradication of weeds, which too is a major threat to the cotton crop. The government is very well aware of all these issues related to the cotton crop and recently it has approved a sum of PKR 5 billion for U.S. firm Monsanto for development of new seeds, he says.

Read more: Agriculture: Through the Ages in Pakistan


Who is to blame?

A recent report in daily “Dawn” weakens the stance of the agricultural department officials who seem to be openly supporting the transgenic cotton or Bt seed technology and other genetically engineered seeds being sown in the country, particularly in Punjab. (Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that produces toxins harmful to a variety of insects, including bollworms that attack cotton. Bt cotton was created by introducing genes from the bacterium into the cotton seed, creating a crop resistant to this pest.). According to the report, the Punjab government has rejected as many as 19 varieties of genetically-modified cotton seeds because of its below the mark performance. The report claims that both the public and private seed producing companies/firms have been constantly exerting pressure on the officials of the Punjab Seed Council (PSC) for approval of their Bt cotton seed varieties such as FH Lalazar, NIBGE4 and CEMB 66 etc. “In its meeting on January 7, 2016 besides the 19 Bt varieties, the PSC also rejected two non-Bt varieties because they had failed to deliver a good yield,” the report quoted an expert from the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) as having said.

It may be worth noting that varieties of Bt or genetically-engineered cotton seeds were introduced in Pakistan in 2010 with the objective to control pests, enhance per hectare yield of cotton and lessening dependence on the use of pesticides, currently being used in abundance in cotton sowing. At present, in Pakistan the share of genetically-modified cotton seeds is approximately 90 percent. However, according to the report, the predominant two Bt cotton varieties – MNH886 and FH142 – cultivated across Pakistan since 2012 are exposed to pest attacks and have lost resistance against the impacts and extremities of climate change as against the tall claims of their producer – Ayub Agriculture Research Institute (AARI), Faisalabad. These two varieties have failed to control pests such as Pink Bollworm that has now developed resistance against Bt gene because of low toxin levels. According to the same report, this year the PSC has also rejected two non-genetically modified varieties of cotton seeds on reports of their low per hectare yield. Bt cotton variety, FH Lalazar also failed to produce high results in terms of yield during trials conducted on a research farm of the government. Quoting documents the report revealed that the government trials of FH Lalazar in 2014-15 produced 166 kilograms yield per hectare against the expected 450 kilograms per hectare. Moreover, MNH886 and FH142 also produced unexpectedly very low yields.



The report further points out that “Bt cotton has also failed to protect the crop from pink Bollworm in Indian states of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra to mention some which are major cotton growing regions. In its report issued on January 4, 2016 the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) predicted how the average yield in Pakistan may decrease by 22 percent due to adverse weather, increased pest pressure from pink bollworm and whitefly and the high cost of inputs discouraging farmers from better crop management.”

Cotton growers in the countries who planted 100 percent Bt cotton like Bollgard II, Roundup Ready Flex etc., have now started showing concerns with regard to the genetically-modified seeds. A 13 percent decrease in harvested area in the United States as well as lower production because of rains are expected to lead to a decline in cotton production of 18 percent, the report says while quoting the ICAC. The report further says the sale of genetically engineered cotton has already been prohibited in many parts of the United States including Illinois, Nebraska, Michigan, and Indiana. They have already banned sale of genetically-engineered cotton seeds.

This well researched report, in fact, makes stronger the position of the farmers and independent agriculture experts regarding previous year’s cotton crop’s large-scaled crisis and challenges the stereotypical arguments of the government officials. The report also points out the problems faced by the cotton growers due to the rampant sale of spurious and substandard Bt cotton seeds in the market. There is no mechanism to check such sales from the end of the concerned government departments. As the report claims there are more than 700 seed producing companies in Punjab and they all lack facilities and resources to produce quality seeds. Pakistan’s cotton research departments conduct more than PKR 1.5 billion worth of research every year but have failed to deliver quality seeds,” further divulges the report while quoting Chairman Pakistan Ginning Association Shahzad Ali Khan, who  describes the country’s cotton industry a dying sector.

Punjab Minister for Agriculture Dr. Farrukh Javed too on many an occasion said the cotton crop failure last year was due to extreme weather conditions coupled with multiple other factors. According to him, the Bt varieties can tolerate weather abnormalities to some extent, so it has not failed entirely. In Sindh, Bt cotton crop has produced good results. Bt cotton worldwide has suffered due to extreme weather causing losses of up to $1.5 trillion, the minister said on one occasion.

A research report prepared by All Pakistan Textile Mills Association, recommends (to the federal as well as provincial governments) to collaborate with the well-reputed foreign companies to prepare new seeds which are more resistant against pest attacks. The report suggests to the responsible government departments for improvement in “productivity and quality of cotton, particularly in respect of key parameters like micronaire, fiber strength and uniformity through intensive breeding and integrated water and pest management technologies.”

Read more: The State of Seed in Pakistan

The way forward

Iqrar Ahmad, Vice Chancellor, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad says the farmers have been facing the issue of seeds since 1992 but unfortunately no government has done anything concrete to address this issue. To improve the per hectare yield, the government should invest in new technology and develop new seeds to thwart the future threats of diseases against the cotton crop.

“Although the Punjab government has invested in seed research but it’s not enough and there is still need to do a lot more if it really wants to restore the confidence of farmers whose trust has been badly shattered following last year’s destruction of cotton crop and very low prices of the yield.  Because of these issues, the area under cotton crop cultivation has considerably shrunk this year and the agriculture department echelons are not unaware of this situation.” He further says the failure of cotton seed technology is a very serious issue since it is directly associated with the country’s economy. This is the collective responsibility of the government and the other stakeholders to find a way out on war-footing. “We have to do this on our own. No help will come from above.”

According to the Punjab Agriculture Department, the cotton sowing area has decreased by 15 percent to 4.4 million from last year’s 5.5 million hectares.  However, the sowing area in Sindh province is almost the same. According to Dr. Anjum Ali, in Sindh this year cotton has been sown over an area of 0.640 million hectares as against last year’s 0.643 million hectares. But the farmers say this year’s area of cultivation in Punjab has come down to almost half as compared to last year’s 6 million hectares (and according to official data 5.5 million hectares). The official claim of 15 percent decline in the area of cultivation is not true, they insist. “In view of last year’s pest attack and very low price of cotton, we have lost confidence in cotton crop and now are shifting to other crops like maize, rice and sugarcane which give us better price of our crop,” says Waheed Khan. Reacting to some media reports that farmers of Bahawalpur division in Punjab who produce around 33 percent of the total cotton of the Punjab have lost interest in cotton sowing in view of the past years’ experience of heavy crop losses due to pest attacks and are now diverting to sugarcane, Dr. Anjum says: “Sugarcane is not a feasible option for that area because as compared to cotton crop, sugarcane crop requires much more water because of the sandy nature of the soil. Sugarcane and rice crops are suitable for solid soil which consumes less water and I am confident sooner or later they will be coming back to the cotton crop sowing.”

Iqrar Ahmad

“The government has invested in seed research but it’s not enough. There is still need to do a lot more if it really wants to restore farmers’ confidence.”

Iqrar Ahmad

According to another APTMA report—Pakistan’s Cotton Emergency—“The issue of stagnating rain water could be handled by laser leveling technology which has been in use since long in the United States and many other countries in order to create slopes on cotton fields and then shift the course of water to a ditch at the end of the fields. At the final stage, the water is diverted to drains and canals.  As far as the issue of seed is concerned, it requires a long-term solution. At present the major issue threatening the cotton crop in Pakistan is the Pink Bollworm. The Bollgard-1 seed technology, which addresses bollworms covers over 98 percent of Pakistan’s cotton landscape, provides protection against three bollworms: American Bollworm, Spotted Bollworm and Pink Bollworm. Last year there was a widespread breakdown of this technology against the Pink Bollworm.  The window for controlling this pest using insecticide is limited as it enters the cotton boll immediately after hatching from the egg,” it concludes.

However, Farooq Bajwa claims that Bollgard technology and hybrid seeds have also proved a failure both in Pakistan and India. “In Pakistan more than 90 percent cotton seeds available in the market are obsolete, premature and uncertified which lack resistance against the severe pest attack and extreme weather-related calamities,” he claims.

Any cotton variety needs sufficient time for research, but researchers introduce immature varieties every year that fail to resist bad weather, allege some growers. This argument gains further strength when Asghar Abbas Sargana, also a cotton grower from Southern Punjab, joins hands with them and says the cotton leaf curl virus (CLCuV) and whitefly attacks had a devastating impact over the cotton crop in the southern Punjab since the immature cotton varieties in use failed to show immunity against the diseases. He argues the preparation of new seeds takes a long period for research with at least four to five years for attaining maturity, but the poor research and seed mafia sell immature and inefficient cotton seed varieties which lead to destruction of the crop and low yields. He complains that in Pakistan agriculture has always been a neglected sector and low priority of the government while it further reeled down on the priority list after the 18th Amendment and decentralization whereby the agriculture sector was handed over to provinces.

Farming community also doesn’t seem positive about the current year’s cotton crop. This year in Punjab despite fewer rains and comparatively better weather from peasants’ point of view, the crop still faces threat of pest attacks. “If the crop remains safe from the diseases the farmers may have good yield and may be get a good price too,” says Waheed Khan. Like agriculturists and farmers the cotton millers also don’t seem optimistic about the coming season’s cotton crop. “This year, according conservative estimates, we expect 12-13 million bales against consumption of 16 million bales, with a shortfall of 3-4 million bales,” says Anis ul Haq. All this is happening because the overall cotton sowing area has been curtailed by nearly 20 percent in Punjab this year after farmers have switched to sugarcane following their bad experience of the past year as they don’t want to face further losses. “However, the authenticity of our estimates depends on the healthy growth of the cotton crop. If the crop remains safe from the viral attacks then our estimates may prove true, otherwise millers will be totally dependent on import of raw materials. So far the reports of the health of the crop are good and seemingly weather conditions are favorable too, so we are upbeat about the overall outlook of the crop.”

A Karachi Cotton Association report appearing in national newspapers says the quality of cotton arriving from Punjab this season is not satisfactory and it reportedly carried some sort of yellow spots signaling pest attack in some cotton growing areas in Punjab. The reports further say that the news coming from India too gives an indication about pink boll on cotton crop in Indian Gujrat state.

“The crop is in good condition and we are expecting a better per hectare yield during this season while the total shortfall may remain around 7 million bales from last year’s 6 million bales,” says Dr. Anjum Ali. But Farooq Bajwa while challenging the veracity of his claims says this year the farmers may again undergo a loss of PKR 150 billion even though, the cotton sowing area has come down to almost half as compared to last year’s.

Hamid Malhi, Director Farmers Associates Punjab while looking at the plight and ordeals of the farmers pleads their cases in monitory terms: “Cotton sowing is the business of farmers and they must have good earning from it. Why should they not discontinue it and look for other lucrative ways if they don’t get better price for their yield which is their right.” However, like Dr. Anjum he seems positive about the current season’s crop and says this year the price of cotton starts from PKR 3,000 per 40 kilograms in Sindh which is a good omen for the farming community and the national economy. “Let us hope for a better crop and better price for the Punjab too,” he remarks.


The arguments of Bajwa and other farmers are based on sound logic. One can’t simply ignore them as a number of reports appearing in mainstream print media too endorses their point of view. All media reports and those prepared by APTMA support the view point of independent agriculture experts and farmers regarding their claims about the scale of the impact of the pest attack on the cotton crop. So the bottom-line of this whole analysis is that while leaving aside the debate, arguments and counter arguments of the government officials, farmers and the independent agriculture experts over the cotton losses, we need to move forward and frame a comprehensive national agricultural policy to cater to the needs of the cotton growing community all across the country.

Read more: Technology: The Missing Link in Pakistan’s Agriculture Sector

The views and recommendations of all stakeholders including those of the growers and the APTMA should also be given due consideration and be implemented where possible. The government must come up with a strong resolve to formulate farmer- friendly policies and check the factors that are forcing them to switch from cotton sowing to sugarcane, corn and other crops.  We too need to get rid of the seeds which failed to stand against the pest attack, and introduce new technology and innovative water management techniques to tackle the issue of stagnating rain water, also a source of crop diseases. And above all, introduction of new cotton seeds which are powerful enough to resist against the diseases is also need of the hour.

Anjum Ali

“It is unfair to attribute seeds as the sole responsible factor to last year’s catastrophic state of agriculture affairs.”

Dr. Muhammad Anjum Ali

Until and unless we start working on war-footing to restore the confidence of the key stakeholders – the farming community – which has undergone a nightmarish circumstances by last year’s cotton losses caused by the pest attack, and do research in seed technology on modern lines to develop what Dr. Anjum calls “climate smart seeds,” appropriate and suitable in the climatic changes, the issue will remain unaddressed. Otherwise, the stakeholders will keep blaming each other going nowhere.

The government is supposed to show seriousness, make investment and put in whole hearted efforts on research so as to develop new varieties of cotton seed to get better yield of the crop.

The Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Reforms Ahsan Iqbal has rightly said in a recent meeting of his ministry officials that “cotton is the mainstay of our agriculture and textile industry and has a vital role in increasing economic growth and development.” He, on this occasion directed the concerned authorities to establish a “quick response system” to extend help to farmers currently confronted with the pest attack and other cotton-related diseases.

Saeed A. Baloch is a special correspondent at Aaj TV. He has written for number of international journals and news dailies and served as chief reporter at the Business Recorder for over 15 years (1992-2008).


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