By Zia Banday, Originally Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2016.
In 2015-16, China is expected to lose its position as the largest producer of cotton to India. Unfavourable weather conditions and reduced government support have contributed to this Chinese downgrading.
Still China remains the cotton powerhouse that holds 62% of world’s cotton stocks of 104.1 million bales. The Chinese government is taking a mix of policy measures to cater for the cotton requirement of its large textile industry, which has a 37% share in world’s textile exports of $766 billion.
It remains cautious enough for price stability in cotton markets in order to ensure that its growers are not hurt. For the purpose, it is releasing targeted quantities from its cotton reserves and allowing limited cotton imports.
With the exception of Australia, all major cotton producing regions have recorded a decline in production in 2015-16. In terms of the fall in percentage, Pakistan remains the worst hit. Numerous factors such as pest attack, insufficient inputs and limitation of varieties contributed to the drastic decrease in Pakistan’s production.
Despite being the fourth largest cotton producer, Pakistan remains at the bottom ladder of productivity. Its average per hectare yield of 560 kilogrammes is better than Indian yield of 516 kg.
However, a caveat remains here that says India grows bulk of its cotton from rain-fed areas as opposed to irrigated land that reduces its production cost. In contrast, Pakistan grows most of its cotton in the irrigated land of southern Punjab and Sindh.
Comparison with China
If the cotton yield is compared with China, then the productivity picture appears bleaker. With a 1,460kg yield, China is extracting 2.6 times more cotton from the same piece of land than Pakistan.
Now the question arises how did China with smaller landholdings per farmer and with substantial rain-fed areas reach the highs of cotton productivity? The answer is in adoption and application of technology and related innovations.
China remains a fervent follower of intensive cotton farming technologies. It allowed the introduction of Bt cotton in the 1990s. Local agricultural research institutes have developed hybrid Bt cotton seeds that now cover 45% of cotton growing areas in China. These varieties have proved themselves more resilient to pest attacks than local varieties.
On the negative side, China is facing higher soil pollution due to excessive plastic and chemical usage and shortage of labour. However, these problems are being overcome with more rational usage and greater mechanisation.
Besides economic benefits, double-cropping of wheat and cotton has reduced competition for land in China. By using short-season cotton varieties, farmers are alleviating plant diseases and pests. Seedling transplantation facilitates double-cropping through better plant management and reduces risks for the farmers.
Plastic mulching for cotton crop in China was introduced in 1979. At present, over 70% of cotton field is covered with plastic film each year.
Seedling transplantation is used in combination with plastic mulching, whereby cotton seedlings are transplanted to plastic-mulched field rather than planted in open field. It helped in improved water usage and temperature maintenance. These two techniques have resulted on average in over 30% improvement in lint yield.
Plant training is another intensive cotton farming technique. It includes removal of vegetative branches, old leaves, empty fruit branches and plant toppings. It reduces the nutrient consumption by surplus organs, hence enhancing cotton yield and fibre quality.
The point to ponder is to explore the mechanism for improving the learning of Pakistani farmers through Chinese collaboration. Economic and technological benefits of the CPEC need to expand its tentacles in different directions, especially in the largest economic sector of cotton. In our opinion, Pakistan’s cotton growers will more than agree with this assertion.