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Business News/ Opinion / First Person/  Revitalizing India's cotton saga: A blueprint for growth
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Revitalizing India's cotton saga: A blueprint for growth

Strategic measures include development of new Bt cotton varieties, adoption of precision agriculture, and embracing digitization. Combined with traditional farming practices, these initiatives will help boost yields, enhance sustainability, and secure the livelihoods of millions

 From a peak yield of 572 kg per hectare in 2013-14, India's cotton yields have plummeted nearly 30% to approximately 396 kg per hectare, significantly below the global average of 675 kg. (Image: Pixabay)Premium
From a peak yield of 572 kg per hectare in 2013-14, India's cotton yields have plummeted nearly 30% to approximately 396 kg per hectare, significantly below the global average of 675 kg. (Image: Pixabay)

India, the world's second-largest cotton producer, faces a critical juncture in its agricultural history. Despite its global standing, the livelihoods of Indian cotton farmers and millers are under threat due to declining cotton yields. 

The Cotton Association of India (CAI) projects that production in the 2023-24 season will hit a 15-year low. From a peak yield of 572 kg per hectare in 2013-14, yields have plummeted nearly 30% to approximately 396 kg per hectare, significantly below the global average of 675 kg.

This reduction in yield has been prompting farmers to switch to other crops, with the CAI predicting a 10% decrease in cotton acreage next season, which could hurt production further.

Reasons behind drop in yields

India's cotton fields face several challenges. Bt cotton, once a revolutionary crop that was genetically modified to resist bollworms, is now falling prey to the pink bollworm. The latest sowing season saw this pest causing significant damage across the cotton belt in northern India. Additionally, unpredictable weather patterns and inconsistent monsoons are adversely affecting cotton, a water-intensive crop.

Despite these hurdles, India aims to become the world's leading cotton producer once again. This ambition is not beyond reach, but it will require a concerted effort to leverage collaboration and advanced technologies to make a significant turnaround.

Revitalising Bt cotton

The initial success of Bt cotton led to a heavy dependence on this genetically modified variant, side-lining crucial agronomic factors like soil health and water management, and also the planting of Refugia or non-Bt cotton crops to complement and augment the pest resistance.

This dependency has resulted in stagnant and then declining yields. 

It's time to explore the development of new Bt cotton varieties, along with more effective insecticides and chemicals to combat the pink bollworm more efficiently. 

The next generation of genetically modified cotton could be designed not only for pest resistance but also to increase yields significantly. This endeavour will necessitate a partnership among agricultural scientists, regulatory bodies, and the agrochemical industry, as reliance on outdated technologies is insufficient to meet the evolving challenges.

Precision agriculture

Cotton, as mentioned earlier, is a water-intensive crop. In a world that’s increasingly water stressed and plagued by climate change, adopting precision agriculture techniques could be a game-changer. 

Traditional flood irrigation methods are wasteful, whereas technologies like drip irrigation can significantly reduce water and fertilizer consumption while increasing yields. Recent studies suggest that drip irrigation could save 20-30% of fertilizer and 50-60% of water, boosting cotton production in the process.

In addition to more targeted water and fertiliser delivery, precision agriculture will also make it possible for more targeted delivery of nutrients. Nutrition is after all critical to yield.

Embracing digitisation

Digitisation is the next frontier for agriculture, with an immense potential to transform India’s farmlands. There is no reason why it should not do the same for cotton. Drones, satellite technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, sensor-based Internet of Things (IoT), can all help unlock greater yields.

Drones, for instance, can scan a large area for signs of pest infestation, alerting farmers to it before it has had the chance to spread. Satellites can be useful in monitoring, analysing and predicting weather patterns, empowering farmers with crucial information they can use to plan interventions.

Robotics and AI, meanwhile, acting in conjunction with sensor-based IoT can inform farmers about the timing, nature and quantity of interventions like what kind of crop protection product to use, how much of it to use and when to use it. It’s the same for nutritional interventions. Technology can help farmers time nutritional intervention so that it is at its most effective.

The tried and tested

The efficacy of any new-age approach will only be enhanced when paired with tried and tested agricultural practices. With up to 74% of yields hurt due to weed infestation, early-stage weed management helps minimize harmful weed interventions. Hence age-old practices to boost soil health like crop rotation, compost application and green manuring can aid farmers.

At the end of the day, we need to turn the tide in the battle against falling cotton productivity. It’s not just a matter of pride, or livelihood, it is also a matter of self-sufficiency. We don’t want to become reliant on cotton imports to meet our needs. Especially when a turnaround in fortunes is achievable. As far as cotton is concerned, we need collective action, collaboration, and a shared commitment to usher in a new era of agricultural abundance and prosperity.

Rajavelu NK is CEO-Crop Protection Business, Godrej Agrovet Ltd

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Published: 02 Mar 2024, 04:15 PM IST
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