Punjab, Maharashtra warn cotton farmers on potential pest attacks

Farmer Darshan Singh plucks cotton from his damaged Bt cotton field on the outskirts of Bhatinda in Punjab, India, October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Munish Sharma/Files

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Two Indian states have asked cotton farmers to step up pesticide sprays to ward off potential harmful bug attacks as dry weather conditions in some parts of the country risk triggering infestations of pests like plant-eating whitefly.

Despite plentiful rains in most parts of the country, monsoon has been patchy in some areas of Punjab and Maharashtra, prompting the two state governments to initiate steps to stop pest attacks.

“We are a little concerned because of deficient rains in about six districts of the state and that’s why we have reached out to farmers to help fight pest attacks, if any,” Balwinder Singh Sidhu, Punjab’s agriculture commissioner, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

The Punjab government will ensure that farmers get to spray extra rounds of pesticides to avoid any infestation, Sidhu said.

Cotton output has jumped fourfold since India allowed the genetically modified (GM) variety in 2002, transforming the country into the world’s top producer and second-largest exporter of the fibre. Monsanto’s lab-grown seeds yield nearly all of the cotton produced in India.

India grows cotton on 11-12 million hectares and is likely to have harvested 33.63 million bales (1 Indian bale = 170 kg) in the 2016/17 season that started on Oct. 1, slightly down from 33.78 million bales a year earlier, according to the Cotton Association of India.

While Punjab is not a major producer of cotton, Maharashtra is the second-biggest grower of the fibre.

The Maharashtra state administration has asked farmers in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions to be vigilant for the next 8-10 days, when the crop is vulnerable to pest infestations, said an official at the agriculture ministry. The official declined to be identified as he was not authorised to talk to media.

Whitefly pests hit cotton crops in Punjab and neighbouring Haryana state in 2015, when India suffered back-to-back drought years for only the fourth time in over a century.

Additional reporting by Rajendra Jadhav in MUMBAI; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell