Agri Business

Can India mend its frayed cotton sector in time?

Bhagirath Choudhary and CD Mayee | Updated on October 07, 2021

October 7 is World Cotton Day   -  THE HINDU

Policy paralysis and dithering over new-generation technologies threaten India’s numero uno position

World Cotton Day is celebrated on October 7 following a resolution adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nation (UN) in 2019. Countries across the world celebrate the day by focusing on sustainable cotton production and recognising the contribution of 27 million smallholder cotton growers, cotton scientists, ginners, spinners, yarn manufacturers and businesses to the cotton-textile value chain and economic development.

In 2019, during the UN-organised global celebration of cotton and its stakeholders, the World Trade Organization (WTO) collaborated with multiple agencies such as Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), International Trade Centre (ITC) and International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) as part of the initiative by four African countries — Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali (known as the Cotton Four or C-4 countries) — that led to the institution of ‘World Cotton Day’. Since then, the rise of African countries is reflected in the growing importance of cotton as a global commodity, and their quest to unshackle cotton production by adopting innovation and technologies.

Rising Africa

Contrary to the policy and regulatory logjam in India, many African countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria, Swaziland, Eswatini, Sudan and South Africa have embarked on the path of technology-led transformation by adopting insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant Bt/HT cotton to revive their cotton and textile sector. Mired in uncertainty at home, Indian seed companies have delivered innovation in hybridisation coupled with insect-resistant Bt cotton to Africa, helping strengthen the continent’s cotton production and cotton-textile value chain.

Cotton for good’

The theme of the 2021 World Cotton Day is “Cotton for Good”, which recognises the multiple utility of the cotton plant, the use of natural fibres for textile and apparel, de-oiled cake for animal feed, edible oil for human consumption and the many industrial uses of by-product such as linters and woody burr. The breakthrough in cotton continues to drive value creation for stakeholders not just in the upstream segment such as development of drought-tolerant H-4 cotton for farmers and gossypol-free cotton for human nutrition but also downstream industrial applications such as cotton-based filament for 3D printer, which conduct heat well, become stronger when wet and are more scalable than material like wood pulp.

Global cotton output seen rising 6%: ICAC

A global commodity

Cotton is a global commodity with an estimated annual trade worth $18 billion and revenue of $41.2 billion. Despite the enormous contribution of cotton to the economy, the buzz on World Cotton Day is missing in India. The world’s largest producer of cotton — with 13 million hectares farmed by around seven million farmers, contributing a quarter of the world’s production — remains neglected in India.

White gold’

Twenty years ago, the Indian government decided on allowing the commercial cultivation of insect-resistant Bt cotton in the country. Offering protection against the Helicoverpa armigera, or American bollworm complex, a moth whose larvae is a major pest in cotton, the Bt cotton technology also helped reduce the use of chemical-based crop protection. Cotton has become a competitive crop and its production widened to 10 growing areas from just a few states. Cotton production tripled from 13 million bales in 2002 to 36 million bales in 2020. During 2002-18, rural India witnessed transformation in the cotton field — employment of women in cotton hybrid seed production and handpicking of cotton, and enhancement of farm income by an estimated $24.3 billion. Production of edible cotton oil rose from 0.5 million tonnes (mt) to 1.5 mt.

With new arrivals, cotton rules above MSP

Cotton cakes account for one third of all animal feed. There has been an uninterrupted supply of cotton linters at 0.5 mt to manufacture currency paper, ammunition and nano-cellulose applications. Cotton plant stalks are used in particle boards, pulps and papers, corrugated boxes, bio-enriched compost, and for growing mushrooms. Since 2007, India became a net exporter of cotton and contributed 7-10 million bales per year to the international trade.

Policy flip-flop

The initial gains from hybridisation coupled with Bt technology-led R&D, product development and commercialisation came under the shadow of the moratorium on Bt brinjal announced in February 2010. Subsequently, there has been no new approval of biotech products to deal with biotic and abiotic stresses, to tackle emerging pests such as pink bollworm, whitefly and sap-sucking pests, leading to a fall in yield and rise in cost of cultivation. It is not unknown that the efficacy of Bt cotton technology is limited, especially against the emerging pests. Policy flip-flop is threatening India’s numero uno position in cotton. Cotton growers face numerous challenges due to falling yields, onslaught of pests and disease, and increased cost of cultivation due to rising cost of labour and resources.

Unauthorised cultivation

Unfortunately, lack of policy clarity and regulatory uncertainties for new-generation technologies, including genome editing, have stifled the R&D, product development and commercialisation efforts in the cotton sector. Besides disrupting business, it has increased litigations. This has led to an ever-increasing opportunity cost for smallholder cotton farmers.

With no other options, there has been a rampant cultivation of unapproved insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant Bt/HT cotton to save on weeding costs. The Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (FISEC) of the Department of Biotechnology reported that in 2017 nearly 15 per cent area under cotton cultivation had illegally produced and unapproved HT seeds; it submitted its report to the government in July 2019. The industry estimates that the cultivation of illegal Bt/HT cotton has increased from 33 lakh packets in 2017 to 50 lakh packets in 2020. Moreover, the unconfirmed report of cotton fields with third-generation BG-III/RRF technology, which was tested in India in 2014, is a wake-up call for the survival of the ₹5,000-crore cotton seed industry in India.

What next?

Twenty years of successful experiences with Bt cotton is mired in policy, regulatory and legal entanglement. It’s time for India to step up to the next level of technology horizon, end the regulatory uncertainty, and evaluate new tools and techniques to counter the imminent threat to cotton cultivation. It is imperative for the government to nurture the valuable cotton sector, simplify the regulatory system, notify guidelines on genome editing, and fast-track the approval of biotech traits that are already approved in other countries. A time-bound and rigorous scientific assessment of new-generation tools and meeting the demand of smallholder cotton farmers on Bt/HT cotton would be a real tribute to World Cotton Day 2021.

(Chaudhary is founder and director and Mayee is president of board of directors, South Asia Biotechnology Centre, Jodhpur)

Published on October 07, 2021

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