India’s crops are feeling the heat in a warming world

Jagtar Singh lost his cotton crop twice. In just over two weeks. First, it was the rains that lashed Chaina village in Punjab’s Faridkot district in the first week of May, just after sowing. The unseasonal rains killed them before they could even germinate.

On second sowing, the seeds did germinate. But the crop couldn’t withstand the severe heatwave around 15-20 May, which again, was “extremely uncharacteristic” Singh says over the phone.

“Hundreds of farmers lost their entire crop in the village, which has never happened before.”

Earlier this year, a similar story played out with wheat. Kashmir Singh, a farmer from Gurdaspur, also in Punjab, says yields fell by 100 kg per acre across his 50-acre farm, leading to a loss of close to Rs 1 lakh. Wheat yields declined about 20% this year in the Malwa belt of Punjab due to warmer winter nights, says Umendra Dutt, executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission, a non-profit, though detailed data is sparse.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2019, India is the 14th most vulnerable nation in the world to the impacts of climate change, in between Niger (15th) and Antigua and Barbuda (13th).

With every increase in temperature of 1 degree Celsius, global wheat production is estimated to fall by 6%. India’s mean land surface air temperature in 2018 was 0.41 degrees Celsius above the 1981-2010 average, according to the Meteorological Department.

And agriculture in India, where six in 10 farmers rely on rains to water their crops, is becoming trickier every season as extreme weather events become more frequent. Warmer weather is altering crop seasons and harvest areas and also improving conditions for pests. Erratic rainfall is causing droughts across vast swathes of agricultural land and flooding in many other parts of the country.

All of this is changing just how everything from rice to apples is being grown—in the process threatening livelihoods and food security for decades to come.

Wheat feels the heat

The worst hit by changes in weather are the rabi or winter crops and fruits, say experts. Rising temperatures and warmer winter nights are causing a condition known as terminal heat stress which is hurting wheat production from Punjab in the north to Bihar in the east.

The wheat cycle is getting delayed due to a late harvest of rice as a result of the late onset of the monsoon. When it gets to the grain filling stage (when dry matter accumulates in the plant and ends up splitting into the grain, determining the grain weight), nights start getting warmer, which stunts the growth of the kernel, resulting in lower yields.

On the edge

61% of farmers in India rely on rain-fed agriculture and 55% of the gross cropped area is rainfed, making farming more vulnerable as the seasons grow more erratic

“Wheat is also facing frequent cases of frost-like conditions,” says S.K. Chaudhary, assistant director general (soil and water management), Indian Council of Agricultural Research, a state-run agency. “Even though wheat is a winter crop, if the temperature falls below 4 degrees Celsius and stays there for a week, it can damage the crop seriously,” Chaudhary says.

Changes in climate are expected to reduce the yields of irrigated wheat sown on time by about 6% in 2020, according to projections by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). However, if you have to take into account late sowing, yields may fall by as much as 18% in the next year, and 23% by 2050.

Shuffling rice

Rising temperatures are also putting pressure on rice—a kharif or summer crop and one of India’s two staple grains, along with wheat.

In the east—West Bengal, Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh—farmers are facing frequent delays in the onset of monsoon rains which decreases productivity. (On Wednesday, India Meteorological Department declared that the onset of monsoon this year might be delayed by a week.)

“If the sowing window of rice is delayed by two weeks, the production might fall by up to 20%,” says an agronomist working in the private sector, requesting anonymity since she is not authorised to talk to the media.

IARI projections predict that irrigated rice yields are likely to fall 4% by next year, and 7% by 2050. Rainfed rice yields are estimated to decline by 6% in 2020, though improved productivity is expected to narrow that to 2.5% by 2050.

On the other hand, global warming has opened new areas for rice cultivation “We were never producing rice, traditionally,” says Kartar Singh, a farmer from Punjab. “The rising temperatures made it possible for us to grow rice.” Punjab today accounts for almost 10% of the country’s overall rice output—11 million tonnes out of the total 104.32 million tonnes in 2015-16.

The increasing concern with the crop, though, is that the wheat-rice agriculture system in Punjab is resulting in an alarming rate of ground water depletion. And farmers continue to grow rice because they get more subsidies from the government.

Bad apples

Warmer climes have seen the apple belt in the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh to higher altitudes, according to Pramod Aggarwal, who leads the South Asia division of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. (CGIAR is an global organisation focused on food security, formerly called the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research.) A decade ago, apple cultivation would have started at 1,250 metres above mean sea level—today, it’s been pushed to 2,500 metres.

Local apple varieties require “chilling”, or a period of cooler weather, to mature. And most of the traditional apple-growing areas are witnessing temperatures in the upper 20s as against the optimum 22-24 degrees Celsius. The changing patterns of rainfall and higher temperatures are altering the fruit’s development stage and resulting in sunburn and cracking.

On the other hand, though, newer technologies are being deployed to help “farmers grow low-chill varieties of apples, which don’t need much chilling,” says the agronomist quoted above. If these work out, apple production may end up shifting back to the lower hills.

Saffron burn

About 90% of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran. Another 7.3% is produced in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Or at least it used to be.

In the last few years, saffron cultivation there is under threat in the Pampore area and its neighbouring regions, which grow most of the state’s saffron. “Saffron is one of the most delicate plants and depends entirely on snowmelt,” says Shresth Tayal, a fellow at the Centre for Himalayan Ecology in The Energy and Resources Institute, who has studied glaciers and snowmelt in Kashmir.

“So if the snowfall is more or less, the productivity gets hurt. And with the weather in the region getting increasingly unpredictable, it is one of the worst affected crops,” Tayal says.

The land under saffron cultivation has decreased from around 5,800 hectares in the 1980s to below 3,700 hectares in 2016. In its glory days, the state would produce as much as 16 tonnes of saffron a year. (It takes around 150,000 flowers to produce 1 kg of the spice.) In the last few years, according to news reports, output has fallen to less than 1 tonne a year.

And the winner is, chickpea?

One of the rare beneficiaries of the changing climatic conditions in India is the chickpea. Originally a winter crop that was produced in the northern plains and central India, it lost favour to wheat after the Green Revolution—the modernisation of Indian agriculture in the 1960s—and the area under chickpea cultivation reduced drastically.

However, in the last couple of decades, cultivation picked up in states in the south and the west, such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Which led to the development of short-duration (90-110 days) varieties that can withstand warmer, harsher weather conditions, with resistance against multiple diseases too.

As temperatures across the country rose, these hardier varieties have gained ground—production rose to 11.2 million tonnes in the 2017-18 crop season from 3.8 million tonnes in 2000-01.

“The potential in chickpea is huge, especially with the technological advancements. I won’t be surprised if production crosses 20 million tonnes by 2050,” says the agronomist quoted above.

The missing picture

“I doubt numbers will explain what is really happening in agriculture in India. All the examples are anecdotal,” says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of Centre for Science and Environment.

He is right. Despite similar stories of declining output from different parts of the country, overall agricultural output in India is increasing. Total foodgrain production, for instance, rose to 285 million tonnes in 2017-18 from 217 million tonnes in 2006-07.

The biggest reason behind the confusing statistics is the fact that India is divided into 127 different agro-climatic zones with different patterns of agriculture. The effects of extreme weather are localised and the decline in production in those areas is mitigated by the increase in production elsewhere.

“The yield potential of many crops, including pulses and cereals, is as high as four-five times their current output,” says Arabinda Kumar Padhee, director, country relations and business affairs, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or ICRISAT. “So yields may rise overall despite damage due to weather conditions.”

Productivity, he adds, shouldn’t be the only monitorable parameter to look at the impact of climate change.

Fragmented landscape

Over 80% of Indian farmers are smallholders, according to the Agriculture Census, who farm on less than two hectares of land, making data sampling extremely difficult

Irrigational water, for example, is a big variable. “Whenever we talk about the future production, we assume that the water level will be at the current level, which is not possible,” Padhee says. “Average annual rainfall might not have changed drastically but there are extreme patterns. Rains are getting heavier when they fall. Moderate rainfall days are decreasing and there are prolonged drier spells.”

“I have been asking scientists how the increase in temperature is affecting soil moisture but I haven’t yet got a satisfactory answer,” says the agronomist quoted earlier. “People are telling me that even if we don’t have enough moisture in the soil, we are providing for that through irrigation. But that is hurting profits and putting more stress on farmers.”

More localised research and more extensive data sets are some of the first steps towards getting Indian agriculture ready for a climate crisis. And prepare we must.

Bracing for the storm

The rise in temperature by 1 degree Celsius can result in farmers’ income declining by about 6% in unirrigated districts, according to the Economic Survey of India for 2017-18. The survey also predicts that temperatures in India are likely to rise by 3-4 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century.

India could face an agricultural loss of over $7 billion by 2030, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But if climate resilience measures in the form adaptive strategies are implemented, 80% of the losses could be averted.

One very valuable tool would be real-time weather and crop advisories to mitigate risks. Take rice, for example, which is an important but extremely water-intensive kharif or summer crop. If the farmer misses out on the sowing window, which is increasingly becoming the norm due to the delayed onset of the monsoon rains, yields may decline by 20-25%.

“Farmers should know that even if they have missed the sowing window, there still are some variants that they can cultivate without impacting yields much,” says the agronomist quoted above. The crop advisories that farmers get right now—mostly issued by the government—are obsolete and based on decades-old practices.

In April this year, the Meteorological Department said it is working at a brisk pace to issue localised weather forecasting to all 6,500 blocks across 660 districts in the country by 2020.

Farmers also need to adjust their cropping, switching to more heat-resistant varieties of the same plants, shifting sowing dates to avoid the hottest months of the year, or changing crops entirely.

“In the semi-arid areas, farmers are adopting crops such as cotton instead of more weather resilient cereals, anticipating higher results but also facing a high risk of failure,” says Anthony Whitbread, a research programme director at ICRISAT. “They should be educated to adapt to sorghum, millets or pulses to mitigate the risks.”

Simultaneously, scientists are looking at developing more stress-tolerant variants of crops. Between 2006 and 2018, for instance, close to 550 high-yielding climate-resilient crop varieties were developed by ICAR and notified for commercial cultivation.

“We are also developing short duration crops to help farmers against the shorter sowing windows,” says ICAR’s S.K. Chaudhary. “Moong (green gram), for example, takes about 80-90 days from sowing to harvest. We are now trying to develop cultivars that take only 50 days to harvest.”

Back in Faridkot, Jagtar Singh has sown cotton for the third time in the last week of May. “There was still some sowing window left for the crop. But if this gets destroyed again, then I will have to drop the plan entirely,” he says. In that case, Singh says, he will switch to growing cowpea.

For now though, the cotton plants are doing fine and Singh is keeping his fingers crossed.

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