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Problematic cotton growing
THE textile sector has the longest production chain, natural fibres being its first links. The production and processing of cotton employs more than 10m people and generates billions of dollars in economic activity as it moves from the farm to various stages of processing and manufacture of value-added retail and export products.
For the last many years cotton production has been stagnant at around 13m bales per annum because of poor availability of seed, plant diseases, lack of modern farming culture including integrated pest management techniques, and climate change.
There are about 800 seed companies in Pakistan compared to only 220 in India, but they meet just 13pc to 15pc of the country’s seed requirement. In 2014, 5,365 tonnes of seeds were available locally against the demand of 40,000 tonnes.
Furthermore, seed dormancy is a significant problem with less than 50pc germination level which not only increases the cost of production, but also leads to wastage of precious land resources. In India, which produces 40m bales of cotton annually, 100pc seed is available with up to 98pc germination levels.
The proposed amendments in the Seed Act and Quarantine Rules are stuck up somewhere in the files as the cotton seed business prospers in a Rs60bn market
For the last 14 years the Enactment of Plant Breeders Right Act has not been approved by the National Assembly blocking access to latest seed technology. And farmers cannot import hybrid seeds even if the requisite national varietal trial runs have been completed. The proposed amendments in the Seed Act and Quarantine Rules are stuck up somewhere in the files as the cotton seed business prospers in a Rs60bn market.
Apart from the controversial issue of accessing Bt cotton seeds, the pink bollworm has re-emerged as a contender to the CLCV in its proclivity for plant destruction. This has led to an over-use of chemicals with decreasing effectiveness, creating a vicious cycle of newer and more resistant varieties of pests. But there appears to be no programme by the seed companies to replace CLCV-susceptible varieties. The problem has been compounded by the dysfunctional Pakistan Central Cotton Committee.
The Ministry of Textile Industry shifted its headquarters to Multan with a restructuring plan approved by the ECC of the Cabinet in 2014. However, no progress has been made on this front. All new initiatives — such as the appointment of an eminent scientist as the PCCC vice-president, revision of salary structure in line with those of similar institutions, international accreditation of testing laboratories, establishment of cotton trading houses to facilitate farmers — have been put on hold for no apparent reason.
As cotton producing countries consume a great deal of water, the demand for clean and environmentally sustainable cotton is growing in the international market. By 2020, an estimated 30pc of cotton consumed in the world will originate from farms which follow the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). The government needs to support such programmes, and introduce new technologies to conserve water, decrease fertiliser usage, ensure zero tillage and improve farmers’ incomes.
Similarly, the quality of the basic raw material for the textile industry can be improved substantially by reducing contamination in cotton picking and its storage. The Cotton Control Act makes grading and standardisation of cotton mandatory, but ginners flout this law as the provincial governments are unable or unwilling to enforce it.
On the other hand, countries in Africa and Latin America are fast opting for production of cotton in environmentally sustainable mode and its marketing based on technologically sound ways.That includes standardisation systems with online data verification of every bale they produce.
The key issues are: poor regulation of seeds; failure of the Ministry of National Food Security to de-register fake seed companies; lack of sustained availability of certified seed and grading and standardisation of cotton according to domestic laws and international demand.
The provincial governments are not collecting the mandatory Cotton Standardisation Fee from growers, and most importantly, the federal government is not regulating Bt cotton seed certification since it has put the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) on the back burner.
This NBC was set up under the Environment Act of 1997 and the subject was devolved to the provinces after the 18th Amendment. Today, Punjab has its own biosafety laws, and so apparently has Sindh. The immediate future of textile exports from Pakistan is tied to market access to the EU through GSP+ which is conditional among other things, on compliance with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
There is no ownership of the NBC by the Ministry of Climate Change in Islamabad. The provincial governments’ rules cannot be acceptable internationally as it was the federal government that had signed the protocol.
What will happen tomorrow if a foreign company introduces the third generation of Bt cotton in Pakistan? Which province will sign the agreement and on whose behalf? It is not possible that the seed will remain confined to one province. Who will monitor the protocols and report to international bodies?
The abdication of responsibility by relevant ministries and provincial departments should be a matter of serious concern at the highest levels of governance. The mess needs to be cleaned up so that comparative advantage of cotton production can be protected and sustained.
Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, January 25th, 2016