Large sections of the urban middle and upper classes take food security as a given. The weather events of 2022 and the possibility of similar experiences in 2023 pose a challenge to India’s food security.
The wheat crop was smaller due to higher than normal temperatures in March 2022. Then there was a shortfall in monsoon rains in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, affecting paddy production. This year has also started with higher temperatures, right from February. If the effect of El Nino turns out to be severe, there may be drought-like conditions in some parts of India, affecting kharif crops and bringing enormous hardship to farmers doing rain-fed cultivation.
Last year, despite reports of a lower wheat crop, senior government functionaries were talking of feeding the world. This year, the prime minister has himself reviewed preparedness for sustaining agricultural production.
In February 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II released its report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, by 900 authors who reviewed 34,000 scientific papers. It pointed out that India is one of the most vulnerable nations for crop production. Droughts and heatwaves will affect crop productivity and farmers’ incomes. It pointed out that maize production in India could fall 25% if the temperature rises 1℃ above the pre-industrial level. At 4℃ higher, maize production could be 70% lower. IPCC modelling predicts higher rice and wheat prices that will severely impact economic growth.
The impact of climate change was visible in our neighbourhood last year, when unprecedented floods submerged one-third of Pakistan, causing death or injury to about 15,000 people and displacing 8 million. About 1.6 million hectares of agricultural land was destroyed or damaged. This climatic event has already caused food insecurity in Pakistan.
India must worry about the impact of hot February and March weather on the wheat crop, which give optimum yield in cool and moist weather. The optimum temperature for germination is 20-25℃. During the heading and flowering stages, elevated temperature can harm yield. During ripening, the optimum temperature is 14-15℃. If temperatures run above 25℃ during this period, the grain has lower weight, because the plant wastes too much energy in transpiration. This is what happened to the wheat crop in 2021-22, and experts fear a repeat this year.
ICAR’s Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research, Karnal, is the leading scientific institution for wheat. It has been issuing weekly advisories to farmers to mitigate the impact of hot weather. They have been advised to irrigate wheat crops lightly, and to spray 0.2% muriate of potash. In Punjab, Haryana and western UP, farmers are progressive and follow scientific advice, so yield loss will not be very high in the region.
Unlike last year, there is much higher media coverage and awareness about the adverse impact of hot weather on the wheat crop. Last year, wheat exports were banned only on May 17. By that time, many export contracts were signed and traders and corporates had bought wheat to export. Global prices were touching $500 a tonne due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and stoppage of exports from Black Sea ports. This year, the export of wheat is already banned. The private trade would also be expecting promulgation of stock limits under the Essential Commodities Act. So, they may not be buying large quantities of wheat.
In this situation, the government may not find it difficult to procure 25 million tonnes of wheat it requires for Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, under which wheat and rice have been distributed free since January 2023 to 2.38 crore AAY families and 71.06 crore priority household beneficiaries.
India is already impacted by climate change. In February 2011, the government had set up National Innovations on Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA) in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, but it is under-funded. There is a need to provide adequate resources to face the challenge posed by climate change.
Siraj Hussain is former Union Agriculture Secretary and a Trustee of the World Food Programme Trust for India.