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Saving India's wheat yield from rising heatwaves

August 17, 2022
topics: Food Security
by: Karan Anand, Rishabh Jain
located in: India
tags: climate change, fod security, heatwave, Sustainable Agriculture

As climate change reduces the yield of India's staple crops, experts advocate for both tech and governmental intervention in order to sustain the nutritional content of food.

Gurjinder Singh, a 36-year-old farmer from Punjab, India, has been cultivating his 15-acre land for the past six years. This year he grew two crops - wheat and gourd (lauki). However, for the first time in his life, Singh suffered heavy losses on his total investment. The reason, he says, is climate change and the sudden rise in temperature it occasions across Northern India

"The production of wheat in 2022 went down from approximately 23-25 quintals per acre to 14-15 quintals per acre, which is a substantial 40 percent loss," Singh told FairPlanet. "This year, there was an unexpected heatwave from March onwards because of which there was a heavy loss in wheat output." 

Throughout March and April of this year, Northern India witnessed record temperatures, with experts describing it as the hottest March in 122 years of recorded history. The country had to deal with 5-6 major incidents of heatwaves, with temperatures reaching 46-47 °C in parts of Haryana, Punjab and Delhi.

Heatwaves and erratic rainfall patterns bear negative impacts on agricultural yield. The sudden rise in temperatures in Northern India had a negative effect on the wheat harvest in Punjab, Haryana (two states that produce a combined one-fourth of India's wheat) and Uttar Pradesh during the rabi season, which starts around mid-November and ends in April.

In these states, many farmers reported losses ranging from 20 to 60 percent. This happened due to the early onset of hot winds, or loo, as it is known in Northern India. 

Not only quantity, but quality of crops affected

Untimely rise in temperatures not only reduces wheat yield, but also leads to shriveled grains, which fetch lower prices in the market and cause losses to the farmers.

Om Prakash Antil, a 50-year-old farmer based in Haryana, suffered a loss of 20 percent on his wheat output this year. However, more than output loss, Antil is worried about the poor quality of wheat, which he claims is a result of excess heat. 

"During normal times, the wheat is all round and fat," he told FairPlanet. "When there is excess heat during March, which is the harvesting month for wheat, the crop dries up and is very thin. The size is almost half of what it would be if it was not for the heatwave."

Antil also believes that due to climate change-induced heatwaves, the frequency of wheat yield loss has increased. "In the last 10 years, the loss of wheat yield due to excess heat has happened at least 3 times, and its frequency is only going to increase," he said. 

Since 2000, wheat yield in Punjab was sustained above 45 quintals per hectare. In fact, between 2016 to 2020, wheat yield had reached 50 quintals per hectare. However, the trend began to decline after 2020, with the levels sinking to 48 quintals and 43 quintals in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

But wheat is not the only crop registering a drop in production and quality. Rice, maize and even vegetables have been seeing a decline in output due to the rising frequency of heatwaves.

Dr. Arun Joshi, the Asia representative at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), explains that  rising temperatures will cause sensitive crops like maize, wheat and rice to suffer the most. 

However, Dr. Joshi believes that a confluence of various technologies, combined with government initiatives at the ground level, can help the farmers overcome the effects of climate change in relation to the degrading quality of produce.

Communication is key

The experiences of Om Prakash Antil and Gurjinder Singh are more or less common to every farmer in Northern India at present. Therefore, experts point to the need to tackle this crisis immediately through government initiatives and technological interventions.

Dr. Joshi of CIMMYT believes that the first step in this direction should be to improve communication channels between the government and farmers, so that relevant information reaches them in a timely manner. 

"There needs to be real investment to improve communication channels between the government and the farmers, both of whom have to work together," he told FairPlanet. 

In referencing communication channels, Dr. Joshi highlights some climate-smart practices that the government should effectively communicate to farmers to help that adapt to changing weather patterns. 

For example, Antil of Punjab believes that once heatwaves can be predicted in advance, it would be crucial to pass on the information to relevant farmers as soon as possible. In that case, the farmer will either sow the seeds a few days in advance, so that they can harvest it on time, or grow a crop that is less impacted by rising temperatures, like sugarcane.

In order to make this possible, however, it becomes necessary to establish a close cooperation between agricultural research centres and farmers. Furthermore, beyond facilitating communication, the process would have to involve an analysis of impacts on the ground. 

Genome editing and agroforestry

Experts also believe the government should increase its spending on Research and Development (R&D) to come up with technologies that can help farmers overcome the impacts of climate change. 

Dr. Joshi believes that climate change is impacting the nutritional quality of crops, and argues that genome editing in conjunction with traditional breeding techniques may be one way to ensure improved nutritional value. 

The DNA of a crop can be altered through genome editing, for instance to create heat-resistant types. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is currently working to develop more nutrient-dense, climate change-resistant chickpeas. This is a significant achievement for India, as nearly 50 percent of pulses farmed in the country are chickpeas.

Apart from genome editing, plant agroforestry systems emerges as yet another important method of intervention.

Agroforestry is the planned integration of trees and crops in a system. Every plant in an agroforestry system is chosen for a specific function; species are chosen so that plants will cooperate rather than compete. Small farmers may make a living in all seasons thanks to the area's year-round productivity due to the variety of crops and trees.

Agroforestry systems are a crucial instrument for agriculture's adaptability to climate change. A 2017 study on agroforestry systems found that five categories of extreme weather events - drought, heatwaves, cold waves, heavy rain and floods - were reduced in severity through agroforestry. It also found that the practice improved soil and water availability, attracted pollinators and increased biodiversity.

Agroforestry and genome editing are but a few examples that can mark a shift towards climate-smart agriculture, which involves adopting technology to deal with the crises in the agricultural sector.

Finding workable solutions, meanwhile, could prove to be challenging due to India's insufficient investment in climate-resilient agriculture. In the annual Union budget of 2021–22, the government committed 550 million Indian rupees (USD $6.7 million) to climate-resilient agriculture initiatives; this amount was cut to INR 408.7 million in 2022–23.

However, Dr. Joshi believes that an effective delivery system needs to be developed so that all weather and technology related information could be delivered to farmers on time.

"We have to somehow make sure that every information reaches the farmers on time, and not just the affluent farmers, but the farmers from the remotest villages of the country."

Image by Anurag Gautam

Article written by:
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Karan Anand
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Rishabh Jain
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Across Northern India, farmers reported wheat yield losses ranging from 20 to 60 percent.
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In March, temperatures reached 46-47 °C in parts of Haryana, Punjab. The two states produce one-fourth of India's wheat.
© Bloomberg / Contributor
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