Trouble’s brewing

| Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 28, 2016

The impact of climate change on plantation crops needs an urgent policy response

India’s coffee and tea growers are starting to realise that climate change — long spells of exceptionally warm weather, rain concentrated over short rather than long periods, and extreme weather events — can no longer be wished away. Rising overall output figures mask both regional variations and impact on quality. India registered a record tea output in 2015-16 despite a 7 per cent decline in south India’s gardens. This decline could worsen this year, due to the failure of both the southwest and northeast monsoons. Tea quality has been a concern in Assam, which accounts for half of India’s tea output. Harsh temperatures in the middle of the year and a tendency for the southwest monsoon to set in late have robbed Assam tea of some of its flavour. The absence of well distributed rain, along with the rise in dry spells and temperatures, has led to more pest attacks. This has contributed to higher costs both to contain pests and to keep irrigation going in the drier months, squeezing margins in an increasingly competitive global market where India is losing ground to Sri Lanka and Kenya. To keep Indian teas going both at home and overseas, it is important to adjust cropping practices. Micro-application of nutrients and rainwater harvesting can help beat back vagaries of the weather. However, both State and Central Governments need to play an active role in pushing this change by providing capital and know-how. Creating shade conditions for tea will help, but beyond a point can trigger fungal attacks.

Coffee, which too needs well distributed rain, is under stress, even though Indian varieties are primarily shade-grown, unlike in Brazil and Vietnam. Shade coffees offer less yields than open varieties, but the trees last longer and are subject to less stress. They impart the flavour for which India’s arabicas and robustas are so well regarded the world over. Even so, India’s coffees are having to cope with higher swings of temperature than in the past, with two consecutive drought years in Karnataka exposing the crop to white stem-borer disease. Coffee being a flowering plant, it critically depends on pollination in the blossom season in March, during which both bee activity as well as timely rains are critical. With climate change, a timely shower can no longer be relied on. Bee activity, too, has been affected by changing weather patterns, for which pesticide-chemical usage too is responsible. Both, coffee and tea cultivation must shift towards more organic practices, and actively engage in the protection of bio-diversity, not just to sustain itself but also to carve a niche in the world market.

Climate change threatens to ramp up costs for agriculture as a whole, for which the Government needs to adopt a well thought-out response. This includes promoting research on drought and flood-resistant varieties, shorter duration crops and crop diversification. Ecology and economics must go hand in hand in the plantation sector and elsewhere.

Published on December 28, 2016
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