Red chilli could turn out to be spicy hot this year as its production is likely to be affected with a new “invasive pest” ( Thrips parvispinus ) infesting the crop in a few districts in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The infection is affecting the plants at the flowering stage and stunting the growth of fruits.

Heavy rains in the growing areas have compounded the problem, according to traders. Farmers are worried that the the crop’s yield might take a hit due to the pest.

Over the past 2-3 weeks, chilli prices have increased by over 30 per cent across various markets in Telangana and Guntur.

On Thursday, the modal price (rates at which most trades take place) Teja variety red chilli was quoted at ₹14,800 a quintal against ₹11,000 three weeks ago. In Guntur, the popular 434 grade was quoted at ₹13,000-15,000 a quintal. Some traders are even quoting in the range of ₹16,500 to ₹19,500 a quintal on witnessing the huge demand in domestic and international markets.

Andhra Pradesh (43.5 per cent) and Telangana (23.5 per cent) totally account for over 67 per cent of the country’s chilli production, followed by Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. During the 2020-21 season (July-June), red chilli production has been estimated at a record 19.88 lakh tonnes (lt) compared with 19.14 lt the previous year.

With reports of the pest spreading fast, scientists from the Prof. Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University (PJTSAU) and Indian Institute of Horticultural Research visited some of the affected areas to study the virus attack. “The indiscriminate use of pesticides and a cocktail of pesticides is the reason. The pest has developed resistance to the pesticides, making the way for the new attack,” R Jagadeeshwar, Director of Research at the Prof. Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University (PJTSAU) said.

“In 2020, infection of flowers by thrips was noticed in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in February, while this year (2021) its population flared up as early as October. Both adults and young ones feed on the ovaries of the flowers and make them unfit for fruiting leading to heavy flower drop and yield losses thereby,” an official report, seen by BusinessLine showed.

Besides spraying neem oil, the farmers should consider planting sunflower crop next to the chilli fields in order to promote natural enemies of the pest and bring down pest population, it said.

Farmers worried

“Seeing the pest population in huge numbers and plants wilting, farmers have begun to pluck the plants and plough the fields,” Rambabu, a farmer from Jonnaram village in Khammam district, said.

Farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana grow the commercial crop on about 2.40 lakh hectares, producing over 12.5 lt of red chilli. The area has seen a slight increase this year as the farmers expected better prices, owing to the demand in the domestic and international markets.

Adinarayana, a farmer who planted the crop on 18 acres, has not seen any flowering on his farm so far. “In a normal season, we would get 8-10 quintals in the first ‘pick’ in the first two weeks of January. Though the plants have grown 3-5 feet tall, there is no sign of flowering yet,” he said.

AV Rama Rao, a chillies trader in Khammam, says that there is a huge demand in the domestic market. “New arrivals would have come in handy by now. But the pest attack is stated to be severe. The farmers did not bring the stocks from the cold storages until the price was increased by ₹1,000 a quintal. It is ruling at ₹16,500 now,” he said.

If prices have not sky-rocketed, it is because farmers have stocks of the last season. Also, lower exports last year have helped in higher ending stocks this season.

According to the Spices Board, 6.01 lakh tonnes of chilli were exported last fiscal against 6.71 lakh tonnes the previous year. Farmers say that a clear picture will be available in early January.