How climate change has hurt India’s staple foods this year
The output of both wheat and rice has declined because of climate change in the form of intense heat waves, deficient rain during sowing and unseasonal heavy rain before harvest.
Wheat and rice account for 75 percent of India’s total foodgrain production. They are the two most dominant crops in the country and are considered indispensable to most Indian diets.
They are also among a very small set of crops which still offer farmers a degree of certainty that they will receive a decent return on their investment.
For the last several years these crops have seen a nearly constant increase in production. This year, however, both crops have seen declines in output.
Although the paddy crop (the rice plant is called paddy) is still to be harvested, the Indian government has already estimated that the production would be about 6 percent lower than last year. Independent experts estimate that the decline will be closer to 13 percent on account of both lower acreage and lower yield.
For wheat, the government is estimating a decline of about 3 percent. The US Department of Agriculture has estimated a much higher decline of 10 percent. While traders, who often know best, say that the decline is even higher at 13 percent.
Why has this happened?
Well, climate change, of course!
India and Pakistan suffered a deadly early summer heatwave this year. Much of northwest India, or the Indo-Gangetic plan, where most of India’s wheat is produced, saw temperatures rise to near 40 degrees in March itself, a month that is otherwise known for its mild manner.
According to India’s meteorological department, this was the warmest March in the country since 1901, when record-keeping began.
March is when the wheat crop ripens and needs temperatures to remain below 34 degrees Celsius or the crop starts witnessing damage. That is what happened as reports started emerging of damage to the wheat crop.
According to a rapid attribution study by climate scientists, the heatwave was made 30 times more likely by climate change.
Paddy’s season of multiple climate impacts
Paddy first suffered at the hands of deficient rain. Most of the Kharif paddy sowing happens in June and July. Four major growing states – Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand – saw rainfall deficiency between 40 and 60 percent in this period. This has meant that farmers have sown about 6 percent less paddy than they did last year.
Paddy’s woes did not end there. In August, reports emerged of a “mystery” disease afflicting the crop in the green revolution regions of Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and parts of Uttarakhand.
The disease is caused by a virus first identified in China in 2001 and has majorly impacted areas where a hybrid variety of paddy had been sown. Although the extent of the damage is not yet clear, there has been sizeable damage for sure as scientists have said that there is no cure for the disease.
Preliminary examinations by scientists indicate that warmer temperatures might partly be responsible for the disease.
“Stunting or dwarfing is more prominent in early-sown varieties. The preliminary assessment suggests that high temperatures experienced by the states during the months of May and June may have contributed to the virus growth in paddy plants,” Rajbir Singh, director of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)-Agricultural Technology Application Research Institute, told Down To Earth.
After the heat wave and the rain-deficient sowing period, came the heavy rains in September - just a few weeks before harvesting begins and at a time when the otherwise water-hungry crop does not like to see rain.
Although it is too early to assess the damage, reports suggest that it might be sizeable, particularly in Haryana.
Overall, the paddy crop is likely to have suffered quite a bit of damage this season. That is perhaps why India’s central government, renowned for much else but not circumspection, has deployed a careful approach and restricted rice exports.
The impact of climate change is clear. Studies have already shown that the monsoon has both weakened and become more extreme. It has weakened because there is now less total rainfall. But that rainfall is now more extreme as it falls on fewer days because the number of days of heavy rain has increased.
It will only get worse
The impacts of climate change are only going to get more and more frequent and severe. Damage to crops, like India has seen this year, will be more frequent posing a threat to India’s already perilous food security.
The government is aware of the problem. One of the solutions that it has proposed is shifting away from wheat and rice to growing more millets. Millets can endure high temperatures, require less water to grow and are far more nutritious than wheat and rice.
But, for farmers to move to millets or to any new crop, they require an assurance that their incomes won't suffer. Unfortunately, the government is yet to come up with any credible roadmap for how this might happen.
This season should be a wake-up call for the Indian government about the risks climate change poses to India’s food security.