Cotton yield in the country seems to be on a downswing in the last three years, despite production set to scale a new peak this season that began in October.
The yield per hectare hit a record 554 kg in 2007-08. Since then, it has been dropping, touching 486 kg/hectare in 2009-10 before rising to 496 kg/hectare last season. This season, too, the yield is expected to be around the same level.
What are the reasons for the fall in yield? Is it because the Bt strains and hybrids, that account for nearly 95 per cent of the total area under cotton, are losing their strength?
Cotton research scientists have a different take on the drop in yield.
“In the last two years, cotton has been grown in new areas where it has never been grown before. It is fine to reach 100 lakh hectares, but it is not desirable to reach 200 lakh hectares,” said Dr C.D. Mayee, President of Indian Society for Cotton Improvement.
Area under cotton has touched a record 121.91 lakh hectares (lh) this year. When the yield hit a record 554 kg/hectare in 2007-08, the area under cotton was 94.14 lh.
“The problem with growing cotton in non-traditional areas is that the productivity is low,” said Dr Mayee.
Scientists point out to Maharashtra as an example of more new areas coming under cotton.
“Some farmers in Maharashtra have taken to cotton farming without the requisite experience. It is one of the reasons for some committing suicide,” said a Maharashtra official.
Since January, 704 farmers have reportedly committee suicide in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.
“Growing cotton in areas where it has never been sown is a problem since it could be rain-fed. This year, rainfall has been erratic and it has affected cotton,” said the official.
Area under cotton in Maharashtra has increased 25 per cent to 40.95 lh this year.
Similarly, the area in Gujarat has increased nearly 20 per cent during the same period to 30.23 lh this year.
Gujarat's yield this year is projected at 647 kg/hectare against a peak of 772 kg/hectare registered in 2007-08 with total area under the fibre then being 24.22 lh.
Same is the case with States such as Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, though the picture is different in Rajasthan and Karnataka (See Table).
With farmers shifting to Bollgard II that is supposed to be superior to Bollgard I in yield as well as fighting pests, scientists view may not be off the mark.
Though over half a dozen pests, including sucking pests, leaf curl virus and jassids, are creating problems in cotton, their influence on production is minimum.
“Pests problems exist in cotton but they are not at levels that threaten production” said Ms Sandhya Kranti in a presentation at the Global Cotton Research Conference in Mumbai last month.
Scientists also rule out any effect of Bt cotton on the soil and thereby leading to drop in yield.
Bt cotton accounts for 56 per cent of the total area under the crop in Gujarat, while it is 98 per cent in Andhra Pradesh.
It is over 90 per cent in Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra. The GM variety makes up 75 per cent and 65 per cent of the total area in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, respectively.
A scrutiny of data shows that yield in Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu rebounding, while dropping in other States.
According to Dr Zahoor Ahmad of Four Brothers Seed Corporation in Pakistan, cotton yield has almost doubled with the introduction of Bt cotton in the last two years. “Drop in yield is not due to Bt cotton,” he said.
The problem with the yield is that pulses and soyabean farmers have gone in for cotton.
The growing conditions are different for these crops and that's why the yield is dropping, according to research scientists.