• Wed. Dec 6th, 2023

India’s food security is under threat as climate change disrupts the weather

India’s food security is under threat as climate change disrupts the weather

By David Ficking

The world’s most populous nation fares worse in terms of agricultural land per capita than Greece and Algeria. A warming planet will destabilize the rain and sun cycles that have fed it for millennia, making life difficult.

India suspended exports of non-basmati rice last week after heavy monsoon rains destroyed newly planted crops for winter harvest. With retail prices of rice up 3 percent last month and 11.5 percent over last year, the government hopes to curb food inflation by reserving more grain for the domestic market.

Agriculture is not the only one in crisis. Tomato prices have soared fivefold or more in recent months, prompting theft from stores, markets and trucks, and farmers camping in fields to protect their produce from theft. One Twitter user said his sister had brought 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of vegetables in her luggage during a visit from her home in Dubai. This time too, the accident was caused by heavy rains in tomato producing states.

So far, India’s most politically contentious crop has been largely resilient. Onion prices have risen marginally in recent months, leading to the fall of governments in 1980, 1998 and 2014. There is no guarantee that the situation will be stable, however: prices spike in October and November, when the country finds out whether wet weather has destroyed the winter crop in storage and the monsoon in the fields. Facing a general election in the second quarter of 2024, New Delhi is stocking up on bulbs to eliminate such volatility.

The remarkable thing about all this is that India as a whole does not have a particularly exceptional monsoon. Rainfall has been about 5 percent above average levels so far, but total monsoon rainfall typically varies by about 10 percent in either direction from year to year.

The problem is that these averages mask large fluctuations in space and time. East of Delhi — especially in the grain-producing breadbaskets of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal — is unusually dry, while western states with more pulses, oilseeds and vegetable crops are soaked. To make matters worse, the clockwork operation of the monsoon has been disrupted, with the dry initial weeks giving way to unusually wet conditions.

This is what climate models have been predicting for decades — a monsoon that grows more intense as the climate warms, as warm air carries more moisture and pushes it in unpredictable ways, leading to more unstable cycles of drought and flooding. It will set the whole country back. Extreme weather cost India $10 billion in 2017 — equivalent to about 0.4 percent of gross domestic product.

The fact that a nation that accounts for only 3.7 percent of the world’s historical carbon emissions — a smaller share than Germany — should face some of the worst damage is deeply unfair. At the same time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is responsible for its own policy choices, which many believe will only exacerbate the problems of food security on a warming planet.

Accept road transport. India has been lagging other major auto markets in the shift to electric cars and buses, with three-wheelers and two-wheelers showing strong sales percentages last year in the single digits. One factor is the insufficient rollout of charging stations, with 19 in the US and six in China and the Netherlands, with 135 cars per public charger.

Where India is winning is in biofuels. The government is running ahead of its 10 percent ethanol blending mandate and is on track to achieve a 20 percent rate by 2025 as it seeks to trim the oil import bill. However, this puts pressure on agricultural production. Unlike most Indian food grains, sugarcane is a thirsty crop that takes a full year or more to mature. It is prevalent in the same northern states where rice and wheat are grown.

Thanks to government price controls that make the crop an unusually profitable crop, planted area rose by 17 percent between 2017 and 2022, with rice increasing by 8 percent and pulses shrinking by 0.8 percent. If policymakers want to reduce pollution while cutting petroleum’s impact on the balance of payments, they need to reverse the current status quo of prioritizing biofuels over electrification.

India also needs to up its game on renewables. The 15.7 gigawatts of wind and solar installed last year was only about half of what was needed to reach the government’s target, a 32 percent shortfall from where the country had targeted by that date. The planned tenders for 50 gigawatts per year until March 2028 are more ambitious – but they must first turn from words to reality.

No country will suffer more from climate change this century than India – but no country is likely to see its emissions grow faster in the coming decade. If New Delhi does not want to see a future of more crop failures, floods, droughts, export bans and farmer suicides, it needs to do everything it can to reverse that trend.

Or the Business Standard newspaper

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