PAKISTAN hoped for a bumper cotton crop this year to retain its supremacy as the world's third-largest producer behind China and the United States.
Instead, the many farmers who were anticipating a profitable harvest are now faced with unexpected trouble - an attack of an insect that curls the leaves, called a cotton ``virus.'' It spread widely two months short of harvest. The government's latest estimates show that the crop is expected to fall at least 15 percent behind its target of 12 million bales.
Some independent economists and newspaper reports have added to concerns by claiming that the crop losses could be significantly higher. Almost 60 percent of Pakistan's exports include textiles, yarn, and other products made from cotton. As a result, cotton losses have created a setback not only for the agriculture sector, but also for exports. These losses are almost certain to affect the country's overall economic performance.
``We had kept the target at 12 million bales [of cotton], but due to unavoidable circumstances, we feel that we will not be able to achieve our target and we may stay in the range of 10 million plus,'' Ahmed Mukhtar, the minister of state for commerce, said recently. ``This definitely would be detrimental to our economy, because the surplus of 2 million bales would have added to our meager foreign exchange reserves.'' Compensating losses
Some officials are hoping to compensate for at least part of the losses through profits earned from bumper rice and chilli crops this year. Many analysts are not certain if all of the losses could be made up, because compared with other crops, cotton makes the largest contribution to exports.
Whatever the outcome for the national economy, the peasants whose crops were hit by the virus attacks are gradually trying to recover from the catastrophe. Many have chosen to plow their fields without harvesting the crop that was left behind, for fear that the price of the lint would fall short of picking costs.
``Too much virus came here,'' says Muhammad Arshad, a cotton farmer outside the agriculturally prosperous city of Faisalabad in central Punjab. ``Even my expenses could not be recovered. What's the use of planting cotton?'' Farmers seek alternatives
Mr. Arshad's plight is clearly visible in his nine acres of cotton fields, which he has been plowing to prepare the ground for sowing sugar cane. He points toward nearby farms where other farmers are doing the same. ``Many farmers have already plowed their fields,'' he says. ``Others are doing that right now. There was just too much virus.''
Farmers like Arshad say that this year's losses have made them fearful of cotton. ``Farmers say that they are worried if their next crop will be a similar disaster,'' says an official of the agriculture department who spoke anonymously. ``Many of them ask if it would be better for them to instead plant something else.''
But other officials are still optimistic. ``Farmers will sow crops from which they will earn more'' says Waheed Sultan Khan, director of the government's prestigious Cotton Research Institute (CRI) in Faisalabad. According to Mr. Khan, the gross earnings of cotton farmers are up to 43 times the price of all the inputs, which is higher than other major crops, such as rice, wheat, or sugarcane.
Khan attributes part of this year's losses to farmers who did not spray enough pesticides because their crops had not faced similar attacks in previous years.
``Where damage was caused, it's because there was no virus here before,'' he says. ``Therefore, farmers did not take adequate precaution. Those who took precautions had a yield of up to four times [greater] than those who did not.''
Khan and other officials hope that Pakistan's success in raising its crop output during the past four decades will encourage farmers to keep relying on cotton as a major source of income. In 1950, the country produced less than 1 million bales of cotton, which increased to more than 11 million bales in 1991.
Still, restoring the confidence of farmers like Arshad, who doubt their ability to generate profits from cotton, could become one of Pakistan's toughest challenges.