Chandigarh: Early rains may be a godsend for India’s rice growers, helping them save on irrigation costs and related expenses, but for cotton farmers there’s no cause for celebration, only dread.
Hot and humid conditions are favourable for the mealy bug, a sap-sucking insect that could severely damage the cotton crop. At least two major producers—Punjab and Maharashtra—have already issued warnings to farmers that the bug could hit their crops this year. The impact in Maharashtra could be bigger than last year, when only three of the state’s seven cotton-growing districts were affected.
“Rains preceding the monsoons led to a weather that was favourable for the multiplication of the mealy bug,” says N.S. Malhi, director of extension education at Ludhiana-based Punjab Agricultural University, or PAU.
Under threat?: Cotton farmers at Hasti, Maharashtra. The mealy bug threat looms over the state, which has several cotton-growing districts. (Photo: Santosh Verma/ Bloomberg)
Mealy bugs have been sighted on weeds near some cotton fields in Punjab and other states, a month after the crop was sown. Once the pests migrate to the cotton plant, they will become very difficult to control, Malhi warned.
PAU has issued an advisory to farmers, warning them that the bug has made an appearance and been spotted near canals and other water bodies in some districts of the state.
Three districts—Bathinda, Ferozepur and Muktsar—are likely to be the most affected, the advisory said. Another cotton growing state Sirsa district of Haryana, , is also vulnerable, it said.
Experts have called for the immediate removal of weeds along water channels, roads and embankments. They have also urged the creation of a natural barrier—by planting jowar (sorghum), bajra (millet) and maize around cotton fields—to prevent the bugs from reaching the cotton crop.
The problem could become more severe in the coming days, said U.T. Bharkhede, head of the department of entomology at Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth. “The mealy bug caused very severe damage in Pakistan last year and this led to an increase in the price of cotton in the international market,” he said.
Akola, Maharashtra-based Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth has initiated workshops to help farmers in the identification of the pest and spread information on the life cycle of the insect, which Bharkhede said can find hosts in almost 300 plant varieties. According to sources at Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth, the mealy bug threat looms over Maharashtra’s seven cotton-growing districts of Akola, Amravati, Nagpur, Yavatmal, Wardha, Washim and Buldhana.
Punjab produced 2.4 million bales of cotton last year while Haryana’s output was 1.6 million bales. Gujarat is the top cotton producer in the country with 11 million bales and Maharashtra comes second with 6 million bales. India’s total production last year was 29.8 million bales. Each bale weighs 170 kg.