The Cotton Leave Curl Virus, which attacked the crop during the last three weeks, is spreading throughout Punjab. Farmers say up to 40 per cent of the crop in the province is already affected, and the situation is alarming.
The delayed monsoon, un-affordable fertiliser, even costlier diesel, non-existent electricity and depressed prices, all have affected adversely the crop; providing the CLCV most conducive setting to attack.
Only the early sown crop is relatively safe. However, the early sown crop hardly constitutes 10 per cent of total acreage. The rest falls in late sowing category.
To make it even worse, the late sowing went up too late — up to even mid-July — for a number of factors. These plants are still too tender to absorb the ferocious CLCV attack. Even the plants sown on time, suffered drought conditions as soon as they germinated. The delayed monsoon has only prolonged those conditions.
The settings are a risk to a major crop. To begin with, it lost almost one million acres to other competitive crops this year. The biggest acreage loss came from the core belt, which is high production area. This has been followed by CLCV attack. In Jatoi tehsils of Muzaffargarh district, 100 per cent of the crop has been affected.
Countering the CLCV attack needs a combination of factors, both natural and human. It needs a lot of watering, either from canals, or rains or from soil, where it is not brackish. All three sources are squeezed. The Mother Nature has delayed monsoon.
The canal water is now mainly diverted to central Punjab area for rice sowing. The sub-soil aquifer is brackish in most of the cotton belt. The farmers thus don’t have the water option, unless the nature comes to their rescue. Though it rained a bit in the area last week, it was too little to make any difference for the virus.
Next option is a lot of nutrition from the crop. A huge majority of cash-strapped farmers cannot afford fertiliser. Last year farmers suffered to varying degrees of financial losses on almost all crops – cotton, maize, rice and potatoes. To put it in a context, the cost of production of cotton is Rs2,499 per 40kg according to the official estimates. The average sale price last year was Rs2,500 per 40kg. It left the farmers with little money and even little incentive to go for it this year. The acreage loss testifies the fact.
Only on two heads, the farmers saw cost of production increasing by 28 per cent. The ratio of rupee-dollar exchange is one of them. During 2011, the average rupee dollar parity was 1-to-86. This year, so far, it is $1-to-Rs93.50. On this head alone, all inputs became costlier by 12 per cent. Add 16 per cent general sales tax, and total increase in cost of production goes up by 28 per cent. Governance issues, hoarding and industrial cartelisation have a price tag of their own for farmers. No wonder, the farmers are not using required fertilisers and other nutrients to save their crop, at least so far.
Thirdly cotton is an indeterminate crop. It does not get mature at any one stage, and keeps yielding as long as the farmers keep it in the field. Once a farmer loses economic interest, with the fall in price below the cost of production, he can terminate the entire crop in one go.
All these factors point towards a difficult time for the crop economy, and also call for some emergency corrective measures.
One of the most required such measure is federal intervention in price stabilisation. The federal government should ensure that price does not fall below a baseline — forcing the farmers to go for an early termination of the crop. If it happens, the country may lose anywhere between one to two million bales.
Farmers say that they need some kind of package to provide cheaper fertilisers, nutrients and pesticides. Some cheaper options are available in the market, like foliar fertilisation instead of traditional ones. If they can perform that only farmers and scientists can decide, the government should promote them to bring the cost of crop production down. As another measure, it can immediately withdraw GST, may be temporarily, to bring the inputs within the financial reach of growers.
In addition, it would also be a good time to see which seed is performing. The provincial Extension wings must swing into action, taking all the breeders to the field and see whether their seed is responding as expected in the first place.. Apart from natural calamity, the Extension wings should also determine how man-made factors are affecting the crop in these testing times.
It may be time to filter breeders and test them on their own promises, which they made to seed approving authorities and farmers.
Finally, the government should also realise that time is of essence in saving the cotton crop. The earlier it moves, the better it would be.