Pakistan is abandoning cotton for water guzzling sugarcane
Zofeen T. Ebrahim
“For cotton producers in Pakistan, the last year was the worst in a decade,” said Kazi Abdul Sattar, a 54-year-old farmer from Ghotki in the Sindh province.
Sattar was referring to the 60 per cent lower cotton yield on his farm. Even the little that was harvested was of poor quality, he said, as the crop was attacked by the white fly. This year, he has prepared his 70 acres to grow a ‘more profitable’ crop, sugarcane.
There are several factors which have contributed to the low yield. Sattar blames the fluctuating temperature and inconsistent rainfall, which have spelt disaster for the cotton crop. From boll formation to flowering, the crop has sensitive stages of development which are affected by moisture.
He is not alone in his predicament. In the city of Muzaffargarh in the Punjab province, farm owner Rabia Sultan has joined the expanding group of farmers in the cotton belt who, in the last decade, have turned to growing sugarcane.
“The heat was abnormal,” said Sultan, a rare female cotton producer in a 1.5 million-strong growers’ community dominated by men. She described how the sudden rise in temperature of 10 degrees Celsius caused the cotton flowers to shed before they matured. “I’ve never seen such intense heat in the month of September.”
A recipient of the first prize for the highest cotton yield in Punjab in 2017, Sultan said it saddens her to see cotton fields shrinking. “Cotton is one crop that is only picked by women, so [a reduction] will bring down the prospect of work for women. It’s an opportunity that has been taken away from them.”
Sultan had already decreased her 100 acres of cotton farmland by half last year, and said she will reduce more to replace it with sugarcane and rice for better profits.
It is no wonder then, that sugarcane is seen as a ‘better’ alternative. Not only is it sturdier in the face of fluctuating weather, it requires less manpower in the fields. Revealingly, the sugar industry also enjoys the patronage of political elite and influential landowning families, and is therefore able to secure favourable policies.
It is this saga of powerful sugar-mill owners, ensuing advantageous policies for cane and the impact of climate change that have together culminated in a decline in Pakistan’s cotton production. The issue has been compounded by a lack of investment in research and development for cotton, resulting in poor quality of crops, lower market prices and a stunting of industry growth.
If this continues, Pakistan stands to lose the enviable position of being the fifth-largest cotton producer in the world. Not only do cotton and its products contribute about 10% to the country’s gross domestic product, they account for 55pc of the foreign exchange earnings of the country. Of Pakistan’s total exports of $23.7 billion in 2018, the textile industry accounted for more than 50% at $13.53 billion.
The switch from cotton to sugarcane is evidenced by the change in farmed land for the two crops. While cotton producing farmland has fallen by 12pc in the last five years, sugarcane has witnessed a near 40% increase in the last eight. Farmers were barely able to muster 9.86 million bales of cotton last year against the target of 14.4 million bales.
This year, the Pakistan Cotton Ginners Association (PCGA) recorded a 20pc drop in cotton crop arriving at ginning factories by January 15. As a result, the textile industry was compelled to import raw cotton to ensure its contribution in Pakistan’s exports.
“Pakistan’s domestic demand exceeds supply, forcing us to spend around up to $2 billion on the import of raw cotton,” said Hammad Naqi Khan, head of WWF-Pakistan. As a cash crop, it should play an important role in the country’s economic and social development, he said, adding that it should be included in the Prime Minister’s Agriculture Emergency Programme as a priority.
The reality, however, is starkly different. While Rs19.3 billion ($115 million), Rs11.4 billion ($68 million) and Rs4 billion ($24 million) respectively have been set aside for enhancing the production of wheat, rice and sugarcane, cotton does not feature on the government’s priority list.
From Sindh to Punjab, the farmers’ woes are the same. “I will be growing less cotton and more sugarcane this season,” said Hasan Abdullah, a farmer from Sadiqabad in the cotton belt of Punjab. “Either the sale price must go up or the cost of inputs like fertiliser, diesel, and chemicals must come down drastically before growing cotton is viable,” he told
Cotton can’t weather the storm
With climate change “out of one’s control”, many farmers have gradually shifted to the ‘safer’ option of sugarcane.
“Cotton is a very sensitive crop and susceptible to pests. Given the inclement weather, it makes more sense to turn to hardier crops,” said Mahmood Nawaz Shah, the vice-president of a local farmers’ organisation in Sindh, who has made the switch. Shahid Afghan, the CEO of Faisalabad-based Sugarcane Research and Development Board, agreed. He described cane as “stress tolerant grass”.
“Despite the water stress, sugarcane is preferred due to its resilience to climate change impacts,” said Afghan. “If there are floods, crops such as cotton or rice may be completely destroyed, but cane will survive and stand tall in the water for up to two months.
The yield may suffer, but the grower is not left with a total loss, which is the opposite of what happens with cotton,” he said.
This is one reason why Pakistan is the fifth largest producer of refined sugar after Brazil, India, Thailand and China.