PakistanClimate crisis impacts Pakistani cotton industry
More than two-thirds of Pakistan’s people depend on agriculture. According to the governmental Pakistan Economic Survey for the financial year 2020/21, farming accounts for 19.2 % of gross domestic product (GDP). Cotton is relevant both for agriculture and the garments industry and accounts for about 0.6 % of GDP.
Over the past 10 years, however, cotton production has almost halved, as reported by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), from 13.6 million bales in 2011/12 to about 7 million in 2020/21. In this period, the land used for cotton cultivation decreased from about 2.8 million hectares to 2.1 million hectares.
Several factors are driving this trend, with global warming one of the most important. Its increasingly destructive impacts have been felt since 2015, argues Saghir Ahmad from the Cotton Research Institute (CRI), an agency of the provincial government of Punjab. Strong rains, for instance, destroy the resistance of genetically modified BT cotton to pink bollworm.
The harm done by high temperatures
It also matters that average temperatures are increasing. Pakistan is contributing to this global trend. On the one hand, woodlands and green areas are being cleared to accommodate rapid population growth, and on the other hand, traffic and industry emit greenhouse gases.
Though cotton thrives in hot and dry climates, excessive heat reduces both the quantity and quality of harvests. Moreover, the plants become more susceptible to white fly and other pests. As Muhammad Arif Goheer of the Islamabad-based Global Change Impact Studies Centre (GCISC) explains: "There are year-to-year seasonal shifts in Pakistan, both in the shape of unexpected rains and dry weather, which have affected cotton production."
Other experts say that cotton production is in decline because the cultivation of other plants has become more lucrative. While farm inputs have become more expensive, cotton prices have remained low, reports Zahid Mahmood of the Central Cotton Research Institute (CCRI), a national government agency. Accordingly, many farmers have opted for rice, maize, or sugar cane. In consequence, local micro-environments have become less suited to cotton production. Saghir Ahmad believes farm inputs should be subsidised to encourage cotton production. Another valid option would be price controls.
Pakistan’s garments industry is growing. Since domestic cotton production is shrinking, it needs to import more cotton. Pakistan’s Central Cotton Committee estimates that about 5 million bales of the 12 million the sector used from August 2020 to April 2021 were imported. The result is higher production costs.
Yet there is also an upside. "Imported cotton offers ten percent better quality," says Naseem Usman, a Karachi-based consultant. Pakistani cotton relies on inferior seed and the intensive use of substandard pesticides, while having to cope with increasing temperatures.
Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism. Both government agencies and private-sector companies expect cotton production to increase again in coming years, not least because the price of the commodity is once again becoming more attractive. The Central Cotton Committee forecasts that this season’s production will exceed the previous one by about one third.
Higher temperatures remain a challenge, of course. Innovative seed with greater heat resistance and stronger pest tolerance would help.
Saghir Ahmad of the CRI is in favour of genetic engineering, but regrets that Pakistan is only spending very little on research and development. He insists that there "should be strict measures to ensure the quality of both seed and pesticides".
The scientist is proud of a new variety developed by his institute that is pink bollworm-resistant. More needs to be done, however. "We still have to find a solution to save crops from being attacked by white fly amid increasing temperatures," he admits.
Changing cropping patterns would help too, says Arif Goheer of the GCISC. In his view, the data of the past two decades should be used to adapt the time of sowing in every district in order to protect the harvest from the worst heat.
He adds that watering the crop when temperatures rise above 40°C would help too. Whether sufficient water can be made available, of course, is another question. The devastating heatwave that hit Pakistan in April is definitely not a good omen.
Goheer says it disrupted water availability for farms by up 51 % in the cotton sowing months of April and May.