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Cotton in Pakistan: How Nuclear Techniques are Helping the Textile Industry

RAS 5075 - Improving Sustainable Cotton Production Through Enhanced Resilience to Climate Change

Heat waves and rising temperatures brought on by climate change are contributing to a fall in cotton yields throughout Pakistan. By harnessing nuclear technology, new cotton varieties which are more tolerant to these weather conditions are thriving. (Photo: L. Jankuloski/Joint FAO/IAEA)

Cotton, linen and silk are textiles associated with fashion and fashion capitals of the world, such as Paris, Milan, London and New York. Some of those textiles popular with designers are produced in Pakistan, where the textile industry contributes 8.5 per cent to the gross domestic product and accounts for 60 per cent of the country’s exports. But climate extremes such as heat waves and increasing temperatures have been impacting the cotton industry, which has seen an unprecedented fall in yields.

The IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is working with local experts to develop and introduce new varieties of cotton that are more resilient and better adapted to the new climate reality in the country. The new varieties developed now account for 40 percent of all cotton produced, up from just 25 per cent two years ago and from non-existent yield in 2016.

“Year on year variation in yields of the cotton crop due to climate change is not only impacting the farming industry negatively, but it is also straining development of the entire cotton-based value chain in the region,” said Manzoor Hussain, Deputy Chief Scientist and cotton breeder at the Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB), in charge of the project in Pakistan. “Agriculture is central to Pakistan’s economy, and cotton has a significant role in driving the economy of the country. Through nuclear techniques, we can ensure that this economic area remains profitable.”

Textiles and the cotton industry

The support and training in plant mutation breeding and selection by the IAEA and FAO, delivered through the IAEA technical cooperation programme, has helped pave the way for the NIAB release of four cotton varieties since 2016 (see How can plant mutation breeding combat climate change?). All over the country, the popularity of these varieties has been steadily growing.

“I was able to harvest my crop this year with a 30 per cent higher yield than what I could achieve with traditional varieties,” said Muhammad Ikram, a farmer from the Bahawalnagar District, located 500 km south of Islamabad, noting that this growing season was a difficult one for cotton growers around the country. “The heat tolerance and yield with these varieties even under the changing weather is very important for the farming community.”

To continue to support the textile industry, which employs 40 per cent of the labour force in the country, the release of new cotton varieties continues. These new varieties have higher yield and improved fibre quality as well as good agronomic performance and adaptability to climate change variation.

“Heat stress in cotton resulting from increasing temperatures and instances of drought can impact the yield and, therefore, the income of farmers,” said Ljupcho Jankuloski, a plant breeder and geneticist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. “Through the use of mutation breeding technologies, new varieties that are adapted and resilient to climate change and with improved fibre quality can be used to continue to meet the needs of the population despite changing weather patterns.”

Improved resilience for millions of people

The collaboration between the NIAB, the IAEA and FAO includes a long-term technology transfer and capacity-building programme. Having this focus, the partnership has included trainings, workshops and fellowships – training Pakistani scientists in plant breeding techniques focused on developing cotton varieties tolerant to drought and high temperatures.

“Building capacity in plant breeding at the national level has become a main focus and we are continually working towards this through training courses and workshops,” said Hussain. “There are millions of people involved in the cotton industry in Pakistan – adapting to the weather patterns is necessary and through new cotton varieties suited for the changing climatic scenario in the country, this is possible.”

Using nuclear techniques, the first cotton variety was released in Pakistan in 1983; since then, a total of 16 cotton varieties have been developed. The four latest varieties to be released are expected to make up 56 per cent of seeds planted throughout the country in the coming months.

Through this long-standing collaboration, Pakistani scientists have reached a level of expertise that they can share with neighbouring countries that are in the early stages of mutation breeding. With this combination of suitable facilities, technical know-how in cotton mutation breeding and improved cotton varieties in the field, the NIAB can now host IAEA training for experts from neighbouring countries enabling field visits to see crop performance in the field. Through the IAEA trainings that NIAB has hosted, cotton varieties have been developed in neighbouring countries for the first time, Jankuloski said.

IAEA support, including trainings, workshops and fellowships as well as practical lectures such as this one in Pakistan, have contributed to building the national capacity in cotton breeding techniques. (Photo: L. Jankuloski/Joint FAO/IAEA)

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