It’s been a perfect storm, combining climate change with an unexpected war in Europe. Yes, we lived from “ship-to-mouth,” as the phrase went, back in the bad old 1960s. But then came the Green Revolution and grain mountains for which we had no proper storage. The spectre of widespread hunger was banished forever, so we believed. Suddenly, though, we’re talking about India’s food security in real-time and being bombarded with warnings of global hunger. 

The immediate trigger has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that’s gummed up supply chains and sparked shortages of everything from wheat to barley and edible oils and also fertiliser. Russia and Ukraine account for nearly one-third of the world’s wheat exports. The more profound, long-term worry is climate change and what will happen to crops and food self-sufficiency as the mercury rises. That’s no longer a down-the-road concern, it’s happening now as anyone in north India and Pakistan can attest, thanks to a scorching heatwave that gripped the region for March, April and much of May. In a study released this week, a global group of climate scientists. The World Weather Attribution Group (WWAG), offered grim predictions about future heatwaves in the subcontinent.

The Indian Meteorological Department had already declared March the hottest since record-keeping began 122 years ago. The WWAG added: “Temperatures were consistently 3C-8C above average, breaking many decadal and some all-time records in several parts of the country.” In Pakistan, Jacobabad recorded 49C on April 29 and India experienced around 300 forest fires around the same time.

Alarmingly, the report concluded extreme weather events, once thought to occur once-in-100 years, are now 30 times more likely than before (or between every three-to-five years). What’s equally alarming is March was also one of the driest recorded, and April’s rainfall was also way below normal in north India’s crop-growing regions. In parts of Kerala, by contrast, unseasonal rains forced cultivators to wade through watery fields to harvest paddy. Again, the result was a reduced, low-quality crop.  

It’s hardly surprising the blistering heatwave coupled with the extreme low rainfall shrivelled wheat in much of India’s grain-basket of Punjab, Haryana, Western Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Crop yields are down by 20 per cent and that led to the government withdrawing its offer to “feed the world” and slamming the brakes on wheat exports.

Mounting danger

We aren’t in a crisis situation yet. But the danger is mounting and doing nothing isn’t an option. The government must ensure we’re prepared and don’t edge closer to a precipice. Spot prices for export wheat had risen as much as 60 per cent month-on-month but eased after the government’s overseas sales ban. Crucially, the government understands that in the wake of the pandemic, people’s spending power has fallen steeply and for some, hunger is an every-growing worry. That’s why the government has extended the free-ration scheme for six months till end-September.

But India and Pakistan aren’t alone in having extreme heat events. France experienced record temperatures of 30-35C on several days in May. “We’re already in an anomaly of plus 2.7C compared to the average,” a France Meto spokesperson said. Also, rainfall was down by a third from normal and this would impact winter cereals like wheat and barley, the government said. France’s wine-growers have been living climate change over the last decade with warmer winters and unseasonal spring frost. Other parts of the world too, like Canada and the US have experienced unusually dry, warm weather over the last two-three years. The other big uncertainty is whether La Nina will go into a third year and further hit grain output in the Americas.

At another level, the Ukraine war has thrown the world’s food and fertiliser supplies out of gear. Even more crucially, Russia and next-door neighbour and ally Belarus. which are under sanctions, produce 17 per cent of the world’s nitrogen-based fertilisers. “The direct impact of the war on fertiliser markets will first be felt in the food-production seasons in India and the southern hemisphere (mainly Brazil),” Rabobank said in a report. “Sowing of the kharif crop takes place in June,” says the report, noting: “India depends heavily on imports of all three nutrients, nitrogen, phosphate and potash. However, it adds India negotiated a contract with a Canadian supplier and secured substantial nitrogen volumes through tenders. “Thus, India’s immediate needs have been met, but it is likely to need to take action again in coming months,” Rabobank said.    

Beyond the war, climate change presents an array of challenges. Agriculture expert Devinder Sharma suggests we look at growing hardier crops like millet (which are also reckoned to be more nutritious) that requires less water. Millet is already grown in large quantities in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. We can also develop new seeds and improve our technology. We also have to fix the problem of grain storage, improve irrigation coverage, make more effective use of fertiliser and manage soil better.

Our irrigation coverage is just 45 per cent which means a bad monsoon can spell disaster. Can we increase our grain output? Let’s look to China which has around 127.9 million hectares of arable land, according to state figures, and produced 682.9 million tonnes of grain in 2021. India, meanwhile, has 156.4 million hectares of arable land and in the last crop year produced an estimated 316 million tonnes of grain. 

Sharma insists India must also move to make farming more remunerative for farmers — a global problem. For obvious reasons, the government tries to ensure that consumers don’t have to deal with very high prices. Sharma insists this has to change. “We have to make agriculture economically viable and profitable,” he says.

Looking at the larger canvas, India, as the third-biggest greenhouse gas emitter and one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, has a deeply vested interest in making our economic growth less carbon-intensive. 

With progress made on renewable installations, adoption of electric vehicles and heavyweights Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani setting their sights on turning India into a green energy powerhouse, we’re making a start. At the same time, we have the urgent need to lift millions out of poverty. It’s not an easy circle to square but we must address it now or declining agricultural productivity and resulting higher food prices will mean more economic hardship, not less.