Safeguard cotton yields from climate shocks
India turned into a net importer of cotton from being the world’s second-largest overseas seller, a decline that experts attribute to waning productivity, shorter growing seasons, the climate crisis, higher demand, lack of new seeds and modern irrigation facilities, and frequent pest attacks.
The importance of cotton in the Indian economy is enormous. Besides being one of the largest cotton producers globally, the sector provides livelihood to nearly 60 million people. In India, the top cotton producers are Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Telangana. The crop and the industry have deep connections with Maharashtra’s political and social history; the first cotton mill was established in Mumbai, then Bombay, in 1851, and became operationalised in 1854.
Unfortunately, the cotton story appears to be faltering. According to a report in this newspaper on Tuesday, India turned into a net importer of cotton from being the world’s second-largest overseas seller, a decline that experts attribute to waning productivity, shorter growing seasons, the climate crisis, higher demand (all of which have made clothing and non-apparel fabric pricier), lack of new seeds and modern irrigation facilities, and frequent pest attacks. In addition, growing seasons have shortened in states such as Maharashtra, dwindling yields, according to a June 2022 report by Cotton 2040, an outfit advocating a climate-resilient fibre industry.
Cotton productivity, which peaked at 566 kg lint per hectare in 2013-14, has continuously been decelerating, causing an imbalance in demand-supply of cotton and uncertainty in the cotton textile industry. As a result, some farmers are switching to other crops because they can no longer count on cotton. The Union government has been cognisant of the crisis. Last year, the ministry of commerce and industry set up a textile advisory group to look into the cotton value chain. This year, the government has announced new steps to boost output to reverse stalling exports as the country’s cotton import bill rocketed 200% in 2022-23. Along with these steps, the government must also fix the structural deficits of the sector by going for a high-density planting system and a change in the cropping pattern to withstand the climate impact. But most importantly, there has to be more research on the impact of rising temperatures and declining rainfall on cotton production.