Going Viral: The Cotton Productivity Enhancement Program In Pakistan
The U.S. and Pakistani cotton industries are interdependent. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA's) Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. exports to Pakistan have increased by 64% since 2009, placing Pakistan as the 5th largest importer of U.S. cotton, with an 8% share of the U.S. cotton export market. Moreover, Pakistan is the fourth largest producer of cotton in the world. Cotton is its most widely cultivated crop, and its raw form also plays a key role in Pakistan’s growing textile industry.
The USDA has tracked the cotton leaf curl disease (CLCuD) as a top threat to cotton in the United States for more than a decade, and the disease has existed in Pakistan and other parts of the world for more than 50 years. By the early 1990s, CLCuD had become the chief limitation to cotton production in Pakistan. What’s more, in 1999, things took a turn for the worse: Scientists discovered that the disease was more complex than they had first believed. Only 15 years ago, it was confirmed that whiteflies transmitted this disease and that the cause of the disease was cotton leaf curl virus (CLCuV). The symptoms of this virus include leaf curling, darkened veins, vein swelling, and foliar enations that develop into cup-shaped, leaf-like structures on the undersides of leaves.
In 2009, the USDA and the Government of Pakistan joined forces to combat CLCuV, launching the Cotton Productivity Enhancement Program (CPEP) with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and other scientific institutions and governmental agencies across Pakistan and around the globe. Goals included:
- Identifying a CLCuV virus-resistant cotton strain.
- Developing diagnostic tests to identify and track the virus.
- Identifying best management practice to mitigate CLCuV’s effect and improve farmers’ productivity.
Under the leadership of Dr. Jodi Scheffler, the CPEP principal investigator from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, the team identified a CLCuV-resistant cotton strain and shared this seed in the United States, saving U.S. industry more than five years of research in developing its own disease-resistant strains. In 2021, Pakistan is releasing its first CLCuV-resistant commercial seed varieties. As CLCuV is endemic to Pakistan and elsewhere, the team recognized the importance of disease monitoring and management and developed diagnostic tests to quickly detect, identify and track the virus. These methods are used in Pakistan’s coordinated monitoring program.
Dr. Scheffler states, "Fifteen USDA Borlaug Fellows were trained and mentored through the Cotton Productivity Enhancement Program. These scientists are now in leadership positions working in academia, government and the private sector in Pakistan."
Dr. Scheffler and the CPEP team also started reaching out to smallholder farmers. With more than 1 million farmers across Pakistan, the team created a strategy to meet farmers and model these best practices with them. From this need, Farmer Field Schools were born. Originally developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for Malaysia, Pakistani scientists worked with FAO's Farmers’ Integrated Development Association to develop schools specific to Pakistan. The schools trained early adopter local farmers to facilitate local village-based Farmer Field Schools, reaching more than 5,000 farmers.
The introduction of Farmer Field Schools highlighted the challenges for family farms, where women and children actively participate in planting, cultivating and harvesting cotton as well as other crops. The Women’s Agricultural Development Organization, based in Sindh Province, created separate schools so the women and children could also fully participate and benefit from the training. Scheffler and the CPEP team also created more than 80 children’s ecological clubs, reaching 1,700 children and teaching them how to identify pests and work safely on the farm. Finally, USDA sponsored a Borlaug Fellowship Program to support 15 young scientists, including four women, who studied in the United States between 2012 and 2015. This has led to a cadre of scientists in leadership positions carrying on CPEP’s work and becoming the next generation of scientific expertise for Pakistan.
For example, Rehana Anjum, a former CPEP USDA Borlaug Fellow, is now in charge of the cotton breeding program at the Central Cotton Research Institute Sakrand (CCRIS) in Sindh. While CCRIS is no longer funded through CPEP, its researchers continue to work with USDA scientists to develop better heat tolerant and CLCuV-resistant cotton for Pakistan.
The CPEP team has worked for more than a decade to change the landscape of cotton production in Pakistan. Through the efforts of 13 lead collaborators and 60 scientists from around the country, the disease is under control in Pakistan. Moreover, CPEP has supported new solutions for the U.S. cotton industry, showing that scientific collaboration can also go viral.
This blog is written by Deborah Hamilton, international program specialist, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, Dr. Jodi Scheffler, CPEP principal investigator and plant geneticist, USDA Agricultural Research Service, and Dr. Molly McCarty Gonzales, instructional assistant professor at the Center for Educational Technologies at Texas A&M College of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences.