Will Indian Agriculture Face the Heat? - Praxis
Will Indian Agriculture Face the Heat?

Will Indian Agriculture Face the Heat?

Notwithstanding the prolonged and staggering heatwaves, a good monsoon – coupled with improved crop output – has the potential to alleviate food inflation and stimulate rural and demand

 

Last year, India urban experienced one of the hottest years in over a century, with scorching heatwaves causing a significant increase in heat-related deaths. This year, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has issued a warning of an even more intense and prolonged heatwave in the summer of 2024, raising concerns about its impact on various sectors, particularly agriculture. And right now, we are living through it!

A Scorched Land

According to the IMD, above-normal heatwave days are expected in several regions of India during April 2024. The central and western peninsular parts of the country are likely to bear the brunt of extreme heat, with Gujarat, central Maharashtra, north Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, north Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh identified as the most heatwave-prone areas. This escalation in heatwave frequency poses a significant threat to the economy, particularly in terms of farm income, food prices, inflation, and public health.

Talking to Forbes India, Madan Sabnavis, Chief Economist at the Bank of Baroda, acknowledges the palpable concerns surrounding the summer of 2024. He attributes the alarm to the considerable decrease in reservoir levels compared to the same period last year. Currently standing at 36% of capacity, the lower levels raise the risk of water scarcity for drinking, agriculture, and livestock if the monsoon arrives late or fails to provide adequate rainfall.

Monsoons, El Niño, and La Niña

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that India heavily relies on monsoons to replenish its reservoirs. With monsoons typically occurring between June and September, it is crucial for the water levels to remain healthy until the next season. This water is essential for drinking purposes, livestock, fodder, and cultivation. However, the parched land resulting from prolonged heatwaves poses challenges for farmers planning their sowing activities in June.

The weakened El Niño conditions offer the only glimmer of hope amid the concerning heatwave predictions. The latest forecasts indicate that the strength of the El Niño condition is likely to weaken during the upcoming season and transition to a neutral phase thereafter, with indications of the development of La Niña conditions during the monsoon period. La Niña typically brings increased rainfall, which can boost agricultural production, especially for rain-dependent crops like cereals and rice.

However, uncertainties remain regarding the monsoon’s arrival and intensity. Last year, erratic rains adversely affected crops such as pulses, and the water-intensive rice crop is particularly vulnerable. Overall, the agricultural sector, which experienced sluggish growth in 2023, will likely benefit from a good monsoon – especially given the low reservoir levels. Around 60-70% of kharif crop acreage is dependent on monsoons, emphasising the critical role of timely and sufficient rainfall for a successful harvest.

The Food Plate on Fire

Indian farmers are confronted with a rapidly warming planet that disrupts the country’s food economy. Extreme weather events – such as severe draughts, unseasonal rains leading to devastating floods, and hailstorms – have become more frequent, impacting crop yields and elevating cereal prices. Adapting to these challenges requires a shift in farming practices, emphasising resilience and resource conservation. Farmers are encouraged to embrace climate-resilient crop varieties that can withstand heat stress and other adverse weather conditions. Moreover, implementing water and resource conservation products will further enhance sustainable farming practices.

The implications of the upcoming summer extend beyond agriculture. Inflation, especially in food prices, remains a concern in India. Higher-than-normal temperatures can contribute to increased inflation for vegetables and fruits, further exacerbating seasonal price climbs at the onset of summer. The situation is compounded by low food stocks, particularly for wheat, and the impact of potential volatility in food prices poses a risk to aligning headline inflation with the Reserve Bank of India’s target of 4%.

Farmers Adapt Resilient Practices

Although agriculture faces significant challenges, India’s farmlands have the potential to usher in a new wave of prosperity through sustainable and technology-led approaches. As a major food producer for the world, Indian farmers are called upon to meet increasing global food demand. Embracing resource-responsible practices and precision agriculture not only ensures a more sustainable use of resources but also enhances productivity and resilience. By adapting to climate change and implementing innovative farming techniques, Indian farmers can navigate the complexities of a changing climate while meeting the food requirements of the nation and contributing to global food security.

Plagued with the persistent threat of climate change, the agricultural sector is undergoing significant transformations to overcome the challenges posed by extreme weather events. Heatwaves, erratic rainfall, and stressed resources have already impacted crop yields, with rice output recording its first drop in eight years. As the Indian Meteorological Department predicts prolonged heatwaves for 2024, farmers are taking proactive steps to mitigate the effects of climate change.

  • Switching to Heat-Tolerant Crop Varieties: Farmers in key food-bowl states have recognised the need to adapt to changing weather patterns and have embraced heat-tolerant wheat varieties on a large scale. This shift is attributed to growing awareness and the desire to enhance crop resilience. In Punjab and Haryana, two major wheat-growing states, a record 80% of the wheat area has been sown with climate-resilient and bio-fortified varieties. By adopting these heat-tolerant varieties, farmers aim to protect their crops from the adverse effects of frequent heatwaves, which previously affected both quality and output. The use of these resilient varieties is expected to bolster India’s food security and mitigate the impact of adverse weather conditions.
  • Precision Agriculture for Resource Efficiency: In addition to cultivating climate-resilient crop varieties, farmers are increasingly adopting precision agriculture practices. Precision agriculture utilises smart technology to assess and provide crops with precise amounts of inputs, optimising resource usage. By employing such calibrated approach to farming, farmers can ensure that crops receive the necessary nutrients and water, minimising waste and maximising productivity. Precision agriculture also facilitates data-driven decision-making, enabling farmers to monitor crop health, detect anomalies, and take timely corrective measures. This technology-led approach contributes to sustainable farming practices and helps farmers adapt to changing climatic conditions.

The Path to Prosperity

Despite the challenges ahead, economists and experts hold on to cautious optimism. Notwithstanding the prolonged and staggering heatwaves, a good monsoon – coupled with improved crop output – has the potential to alleviate food inflation and stimulate rural and urban demand. The development of La Niña conditions could bring relief in terms of increased rainfall and agricultural productivity. However, careful monitoring and proactive measures are essential to mitigate the adverse impacts of heatwaves and erratic weather patterns on India’s economy and public well-being.

India’s agricultural sector is actively adapting to the persistent threat of climate change. Farmers are transitioning to new age practices which will enable them to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events and optimise crop productivity. With a focus on sustainable farming practices, experts believe India is poised to overcome the challenges posed by a rapidly warming planet and ensure food security for the nation and beyond.

 

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