New Delhi: Even though the agriculture ministry has forecast India’s 2017 wheat harvest at a record 96.6 million tonnes, the United States’ Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) latest country report has put the number at a modest 95 million tonnes on concerns that growing conditions are less than optimal.
The USDA forecast implies that India’s wheat harvest beginning April may not surpass the previous record of 95.9 million tonnes in 2014.
Since December growing conditions were better than last year but temperatures were slightly above normal and are gradually rising since the second week of February, indicating early onset of spring, the report said.
It adds that “the conditions are less than optimal compared to the (previous) record harvest year (2014), when an extended winter (relatively cool temperature with sufficient well spread rains through March) supported record yield realization.”
Raising questions on the reliability of India’s agriculture production data, the report further said that the Indian government’s production numbers for last year (2016 harvest) were not consistent with its domestic market fundamentals for wheat.
USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service maintains India’s 2016 wheat harvest at 87 million tonnes, substantially lower than the 93.2 million tonnes estimated by the government, but higher than the 80-85 million tonnes estimated by traders.
“Vulnerability of the wheat crop to changing climatic conditions, particularly the ‘earlier-than-normal’ rise in temperatures at the grain filling stage (March/April) is a major concern,” the USDA report said.
It adds that “of the 31 million hectares under wheat cultivation, researchers estimate that about 10-12 million hectares are prone to terminal heat stress.”
The veracity of India’s crop data came under criticism after domestic wheat prices rose and government procurement fell short of target during 2016-17.
In December, the government abolished the import duty on wheat, lending credence to criticism that agriculture ministry’s overestimated production (for 2016 wheat harvest).
While India is estimated to import over 5 million tonnes of wheat in 2016-17- after close to a decade being a net exporter- government procurement fell short of targets by 5 million tonnes. Based on the record production estimates of the agriculture ministry (for the 2017 harvest season), the food department has targeted to procure a record 33 million tonnes from farmers in 2017-18.