Heatwave scorches Indian farmers’ bumper wheat crop hopes

Scorching weather is hurting the wheat crop in India, which is pinching a global supply already under strain from the Ukraine war. The heatwave is a warning for India’s agricultural sector to adapt quickly to climate impacts, experts say.

Indian wheat farmer
The hot weather has not just burnt a hole in the Indian farmers’ income, but is pinching consumers globally. India is the world’s second-largest wheat producer. Image: Jason Wallis/Flickr

Farmer Raghubir Singh was expecting to reap a rich crop of wheat in his 20-acre patch of land in the northern Indian state of Haryana’s Karnal this year, but his hopes were dashed when summer arrived a month early in March and shrivelled the grains. 

“I will have no savings this year from wheat. My yield is 15-20 per cent less than what I expected,” says Singh. 

His plight is similar to thousands of farmers across India’s breadbasket northern region, where an unprecedented heatwave has cut short the spring season during which the grains ripen. The temperature rise since March has shattered a more than century-old record — a phenomenon that scientists attribute to global warming. 

The blazing weather has not just burnt a hole in the Indian farmers’ income, but is pinching consumers globally. Stung by the heat spell, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, India, suddenly imposed an export ban last weekend, days after fresh estimates showed that the wheat output will drop by 5.7 per cent below initial estimates to 105 million tonnes this year. 

Global wheat prices have shot up to a record US$453 per tonne following India’s export curb as nearly a dozen nations were hoping for supplies from the South Asian country to compensate for shipments disrupted by the war between top producers Russia and Ukraine. 

India is projected to lose over 3 million full-time jobs in the agriculture sector (by 2030) owing to heat stress.

Arunabha Ghosh, CEO, Council on Energy Environment and Water

Climate scientists say that this year’s bitter experience with the wheat crop is a loud and clear warning for India’s agriculture to adapt quickly to climate change. The stakes are especially high for the country as nearly half of its workforce is employed in agriculture. 

“Over the last three decades, we have seen an incremental increase in average temperature every decade. We have to adapt to the situation,” says D.S. Pai, director at the Institute for Climate Change Studies, who is based out in the southern Indian state of Kerala. 

Looming threat of more heatwaves  

The indications are that the heat waves will only increase in the future. The number of heatwave days in India, which is defined as temperature remaining above 40 degrees Celsius, rose to 600 between 2011-20, up from 413 between 1981-90, according to a study by the Indian Meteorological Department.  

“Heatwaves are going to impact India’s jobs, growth and sustainability plans. India is projected to lose over 3 million full-time jobs in the agriculture sector (by 2030) owing to heat stress,“ says Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of New Delhi-based Council on Energy Environment and Water (CEEW), a public policy research institute. 

Farmers from the northern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have reported losses between 20-60 per cent for the winter-down wheat harvest, says CEEW.

India will need to map a heatwave landscape across the country and then coordinate with multiple agencies to tailor an effective response to mitigate the impact, says Ghosh.  

A stronger ability to accurately predict erratic weather patterns must go hand in hand with smart agriculture practices such as planting climate-tolerant hybrid varieties and planning the sowing and cultivation in sync with the changing weather pattern, say scientists. 

“Those farmers who planted wheat on time in November did not suffer much loss, unlike other farmers who delayed the sowing until end-December,” says R.S. Paroda, former director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the country’s premier agriculture institute. 

Embracing climate change  

Indian farmers would also need to tap into a rich pool of climate-tolerant crops that it has already developed, besides improving the state-run India Meteorological Department’s forecast of medium and long-term weather to better predict weather extremes, says Paroda. 

To be sure, drought-resistant rice varieties such as Pusa 1121 — a type of basmati rice that requires less water and matures early — have helped farmers better cope with erratic rainfall and contributed significantly to propelling India to be the world’s top rice exporter. But agriculturists say that climate-hardy varieties of other crops, such as lentils and oilseeds, need to be more widely used as well.  

Indian farmers say that often many climate smart technologies do not reach rural areas due to a lack of coordination among state agencies. 

“The innovation remains in the laboratories. There is some degree of improvement (in developing climate-resistant varieties, but the benefits do not (always) percolate down to the grassroots level,” says Binod Anand, president of the Rashtriya Kisan Progressive Association, a representative body of 1.3 million farmers. 

Besides, Indian state authorities need to encourage farmers to grow crops that are more suitable to climate conditions in different provinces. For instance, farmers in the water-stressed northern state of Punjab grow rice as the main summer crop because of high minimum purchase prices offered by the government, says Binod. 

If the current heat spell prolongs, it could also pose a danger to the summer-sown rice crop, because it could dry up the ground water, say analysts.   

Ajay Kakra, managing partner of JU Agri Sciences, which provides funds for early stage start ups in food and agriculture, says that water tables in farms will need to be actively monitored because of climate change.  

Techniques such as the direct seeding of rice plants — which saves water compared to the traditional method of transplanting seeds from a nursery — will also need to be vigorously practiced, Kakra adds. 

There could be some relief from the heat wave as the India Meteorological Department predicts that monsoon rains will arrive about a week earlier than normal over the southern state of Kerala on 27 May, and the total rainfall volume will be normal through the June-September season. 

But much will also depend on how the rainfall gets distributed, as in the past it has often been uneven with flash floods in certain parts and drought-like conditions elsewhere. Erratic monsoons could be an even bigger spoiler than wheat, because India is the world’s top rice exporter. 

Monsoon rainfall in the northern and north eastern regions of India have declined over the past 30 years, according to a report of India Meteorological Department. 

Power cuts of up to eight hours in many northern rural provinces due to high urban demand for electricity to cool homes and offices is already posing a worry for farmers as most depend on grid supplies to pump underground water to cultivate their summer crops.  

“We are keeping our fingers crossed that the monsoon is normal. We don’t want another crisis like in wheat,” says Vijay Setia, a leading rice exporter, who is based in the northern state of Haryana. 

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