Agri Business

World Cotton Day: Shaping the future of cotton

Ram Kaundinya October 7 | Updated on October 07, 2021

Cotton Crop yield outkirts at Sangareddy in Sangareddy District (FILE PHOTO)   -  The Hindu

Cotton, recognised for its versatility, forms the backbone of India’s textile industry and truly so

India is indisputably one of the largest producers of cotton in the world, accounting for nearly 26 per cent of the world’s cotton production.

However, while the country prominently occupies the largest area – 12.5 to 13.5 million hectares – under cotton cultivation globally, its yield per hectare (roughly 459 kg/ha) still falls short of the global average (757 kg/h).

India’s current rank – 33rd worldwide in terms of productivity per hectare – indicates that there is a long way to cement our position not just as leaders in cotton production, but at the forefront of agro-productivity.

Tech-enabled growth

Cotton, recognised for its versatility, forms the backbone of India’s textile industry and truly so. As a commercially important crop with significant demand, it offers an effective, reliable and lucrative option for the textile industry as compared to the available alternatives, that pose both environmental and degeneration threats.

While the domestic textile industry and scope for cotton production have seen tremendous growth over the past two decades, based on the benefit of Bt cotton technology, the future requirements of the textile industry do not seem to be within the reach of the current levels of production and productivity of cotton in the country.

Current production of about 36 million bales is way short of the requirement of above 60 million bales by the end of this decade. This gap can be filled only by encouraging investments in research and development in breeding and the upgradation of technologies including latest GM (genetically-modified) technology tools and propel sectoral growth.

Also read: Can India mend its frayed cotton sector on time?

With traditional cultivation and breeding unable to keep pace with the population’s growing needs for food security, GM crops offer a promising alternative to bridge this gap. A key GM crop is Bt cotton that occupies the largest market share of hybrid seeds – with evidence backing claims that it curtails pesticide use and the need for toxic pesticide alternatives, while also offering benefits of doubling yields, tripling cotton production, and raising productivity levels.

Such technology can greatly benefit the farming community, while also facilitating water conservation efforts. Thus, going forward, our aim should be to introduce new cotton seed traits in strategic alignment with regional needs – ensuring water use efficiency, herbicide tolerance, and more. We should not hesitate since the entire economy of cotton producing States and the textile production-based States will suffer economic losses in the absence of our investing in the future.

Investing in the future

By continuing to encourage investments in research and development for better and improved cotton seeds through modern breeding techniques and upgradation of technologies such as GM including Herbicide Tolerant- Insect Resistant cotton, which can help us unlock a radical transformation across the textile value chain and spearhead positive growth for the sector, while using fewer resources more efficiently.

Especially considering the government’s investments to fund biotech research across agriculture, we must not let this opportunity go to waste. We have to understand the needs of the farmers who have been crying for help of upgraded insect control technology and weed management technologies even if they are GM technologies that deliver value and solve their problems soon.

Technology advancements in the sector often come under scrutiny, and regulatory processes need to be streamlined in order to proceed in a predictable and science-based manner. Without smooth and easy-to-operate regulatory mechanisms in place, companies are also disincentivised and thus not ready to rise to the fore by adopting these technologies.

It is essential that favourable progress is made on policies to pave the way for more agile systems within farming, so we can leverage synergies between science and technology to optimise production with an emphasis on driving value chain competitiveness. We must evolve our agronomic practices and tech strategies in line with the times.

Also read: Global cotton output seen rising 6%: ICAC

Pests and diseases keep evolving and technology should also be allowed to evolve with investments over time so that we can help farmers fight the new threats. Stagnation in deployment of science technology in cotton based on unfounded campaigns launched by vested interests against the technology will eventually result in distress for cotton farmers and the value chain.

Policy environment for investments has to be strengthened by resolving issues such as intellectual property (IP) complications regarding traits and GM cotton seed price controls.

As a country we must engage in constant R&D to leverage efficient and evolving biotechnology products. This can also lend a competitive advantage that is vital to the economy, particularly in regions where cotton cultivation as well as textile manufacturing are dominant modes of livelihood.

Moreover, the benefits trickle down and can be reaped by Indian farmers in the form of employment generation and raised farm incomes. Today, an estimated 5.8 million farmers make a living growing cotton, with nearly 60 million people across the value chain. With technology upgradation, they can cultivate and supply high-yielding crops, enhancing their productivity while advancing the sector.

The case for GM crops and Bt cotton is becoming abundantly clear. The advantages are multivariate; with the roadmap for the industry as one of transformative growth by harnessing the full potential of indigenous cotton crops through a combination of R&D and technological innovations, while generating employment and meeting supply needs – both locally and globally.

Actions to discredit Bt and related technologies can be detrimental to farmers’ interests and prosperity. The government must be called upon to consider the research and real-world findings outlining the clear benefits of Bt cotton and review the decision and mechanisms to adopt cotton technologies accordingly.

This can have important implications for the nation as well – contributing to a self-reliant agricultural sector, and one better placed to compete on a global stage. Simultaneously, they should take a clear, firm stance against the unauthorised Bt cotton and take measures to curb its illegal cultivation.

On World Cotton Day, it is time to not only celebrate the endless potential of the versatile crop, but to take action towards better leveraging it. Through innovative and sustainable technologies, we can start to shape the future of cotton. Now, the question is – will regulatory frameworks allow for it?

(The author is Director-General, Federation of Seed Industry of India)

Published on October 07, 2021

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