Foreign Policy Blogs

Green Revolution ignored, part 1: Practicalities

Yesterday, an article about agricultural practice in the Ferghana Valley brought me up short, because the numbers in it just sounded wrong.  However, I am no agricultural expert:  I spent a good part of the day talking to some wonderful people who know and study cotton at Texas A & M University.  In particular, I spoke with Dr. Kevin Bronson, a soil fertilizer specialist who spent part of two different spring seasons in Uzbekistan with the Winrock International NGO, advising cotton farmers.  It was quite evident that he enjoyed his two tours of Uzbekistan: he particularly noted the hospitality of Uzbekistan's people.

Ferghana cotton yields, practices vs. U.S. cotton standards
Here is the official Uzbekistan television report.  Parenthesis and brackets are my mathematical conversions and clarity edits.

The program informed [us] that from 13765 hectares (34,014 acres) of cultivated area in the district, 7318 hectares (18,083 acres) are allocated for cotton. At the present moment, 89242 kilos (196,745 pounds) of cotton seeds have been delivered from Pakhtaabad cotton factory's warehouse to the farms.  The delivery was accompanied by law enforcement officers.  An area of 1394 hectares (3,445 acres) was seeded [from that shipment] at the rate of sixty seven kilos of seeds per each hectare.  (67 kilos per hectare = 59.77 pounds per acre).  Today fifty-two tons of cotton seeds and six tons of cellophane film, used [for the work of] sowing are available at the factory's warehouse.  . (. . . .)

Sixty pounds of cottonseed per acre is far more than is required to seed cotton fields.  In the U.S. the seeding rate runs about 15 pounds of cottonseed per acre.  However, over-seeding appears to be a compensatory process based upon other over-inputs, and procedural choices:

Soil Thermometer1. Scheduling: The cotton planting described in the news article starts far too early.  Though the Ferghana Valley is more northern in latitude than, say, Texas, Texas has not yet sown cottonseed.  Soil temperatures dictate the proper moment for planting; seeds germinate best in soil whose temperature has is 65 degrees for at least four days.  Therefore, that six tons of cellophane, which is used to warm the soil after the seed has been planted, would be unnecessary if cotton farmers waited another four weeks to plant.  Some soil thermometers would be a better purchase.

Irrigation, Khorezm Area, 20022. Over-input of water: Cotton is a crop that is prone to fungus and insect infestation, and one sure way to cut down the incidence of infestation is to use water strategically.  Cotton does not need to be watered for the first month; according to Dr. Bronson, not only is early watering unnecessary, but counterproductive, stunting the seedlings' growth.  Once irrigation commences, however, sufficient soil moisture is obtained by using alternate furrow irrigation.  Alternate furrow irrigation sounds just like it is: not running water down every channel of the cotton field, but every other one.

3. Other prodigal inputs: Here is another paragraph from the article:

Chemicals and fertilizers, especially saltpeter, are also taken under strict account by Departments of Internal Affairs and delivered to farms from regional chemicals warehouses, always accompanied by a militiaman.

Since over-input of water causes cotton seed to run off out of the ground, stunts seedling growth, and contributes to fungal infestations, then it is also a root cause of other "waste of input", as Dr. Bronson called it.  Fertilizer is applied to cotton fields in two-to-four times the quantity necessary.  In India and Pakistan, around 120 pounds of nitrogenous fertilizer is applied per acre; in the Ferghana Valley, at least twice this much.  Likewise, preventing root rot, etc, by limiting water is far less expensive than applying fungicide.

Note: The use of militiamen in fertilizer distribution possibly has to do with the type of saltpeter, which is not a technical term, but rather any of three basic substances.  It suggests that rather than using urea or sodium nitrates, potassium nitrate is applied.  Potassium nitrate can be used to make explosives. 

On the off-chance that any Ministers of Agriculture are out there, reading this:  There's an expert or two out there, maybe in the U.S., India or Pakistan, who can look at this information and verify it or amend it to your actual conditions. 

Dr. Kevin Bronson and Dr. Jackie Smith of Texas A & M University graciously spent a good part of their day on this information and gave me other leads for sources.  Gig "em, Aggies! Thank you so kindly for the Texas hospitality‚ and the sufferance of my inexperience . . . .

Other sources:
FAO on Water User Associations & Khorezm
Texas A & M University System Agriculture and Research and Extension Center
The Cotton Corporation of India (state agricultural enterprise), an agribusiness site with interesting reports, especially:
The first 40 days: Expert recommendations

Photos:, FAO