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Climate change upsets India's apple cart

Apple growers may need to plant more resilient varieties. A hardier variety of ‘high density’ apple, developed in Italy, is being marketed. The jury is still out on whether it is a viable alternative. (Photo: Javaid Naikoo )Premium
Apple growers may need to plant more resilient varieties. A hardier variety of ‘high density’ apple, developed in Italy, is being marketed. The jury is still out on whether it is a viable alternative. (Photo: Javaid Naikoo )

  • Early snowfall, high summer temperatures and inconsistent rainfall are affecting apple yields
  • Apple growers may need to plant more resilient varieties. A hardier variety of ‘high density’ apple, developed in Italy, is being marketed. The jury is still out on whether it is a viable alternative.

SRINAGAR : Adnan Khan’s apple crop is ruined this year. The 33-year-old farmer from Pinjoora village in Jammu and Kashmir’s Shopian district, 60 km south of Srinagar, waited longer than his neighbours to start harvesting, and is paying a big price for it. Heavy, unseasonal snowfall in the last week of October across Kashmir valley wreaked havoc on his orchard, bringing down tree branches laden with fruit and even uprooting some of the trees, apart from covering much of the standing crop with frost. The 10 labourers Khan had hired to help with his harvesting instead spent days cleaning up and repairing the damage as best as they could.

“About 40% of my produce was destroyed by the untimely snowfall," he said. “The apple crop is sensitive, and in the last few years, environmental changes like inconsistent rainfall, decreased water availability from rivers, excessively high summer temperatures and early snowfall have been repeatedly affecting my yields. Even the taste, colour and shape of my apples are no longer what they used to be."

Apple prices vary according to the grade of the fruit, and declining quality—a downgrade from ‘A’ to ‘B’ or ‘C’—had been adding to the pressure on his bottom line even before the snowstorm struck.

His counterpart in North Kashmir, Abdul Hameed Wani, agreed. “Just two days of late-October snowfall have led to a 40% loss on my apple crop," he said. “But it is not just the snow. The excess rain we have been seeing lately, which shortens the apple trees’ flowering season, as also the extra-hot summers, which bring crop diseases in their wake, have been a bigger threat for me." He, however, also blamed apple growers for the fall in productivity. “Many of them use substandard fertilizer and pesticides, and have been mismanaging their orchards," he said.

Government sources estimate that the early snowfall damaged on average 30% of the apple crop this year across the south-central districts of Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag. It was all the more galling as planting this year in this region had been high, much higher than in north Kashmir.

Apple cultivation in India, around 25-26 lakh metric tonnes (MT) annually, is restricted mainly to Jammu and Kashmir, which produces 78% of the total, and neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, which provides another 19%. (The states of Uttaranchal, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland contribute the rest.)

In Kashmir, the apple industry is the largest employment generator in the union territory, providing 400 man-days of work per year per hectare of orchard, employing 3.5 million people, and contributing to about 10% to its gross domestic product (GDP). Its rise has been remarkable—from 30,000 MT with 16,000 hectares under cultivation in 1960-61 to 19.85 lakh MT with 335,000 hectares in 2020-21. Apples and walnuts dominate fruit production followed by pears, apricots, mangoes, cherries, plums, citrus fruits and almonds. Most apple growers are marginal farmers with lands ranging from three to 10 ‘kanals’ (eight kanals make an acre).

Himachal’s lost shine

Production in Himachal Pradesh has also been adversely impacted. Here, apple cultivation has grown even more rapidly than in Kashmir, the area under use rising in the last 70 years from a mere 400 hectares in 1950-51 to 114,144 hectares in 2020-21, but the good times seem to be over. The golden year was 2010-11 when the state reached a record apple production of 892,000 MT, which fell to 777,000 MT in 2015-16 and 625,199 MT in 2020-21, according to some horticulture experts Mint spoke to.

As in recent past years, in 2021-22 too, excessive rain during the flowering season and fluctuating heat in summer disrupted pollination and led to a spike in crop disease, lowering output.

Rajesh Khimta, whose family has been in apple cultivation since 1953, owns an orchard in the Shimla-Jabbal area, with an annual production of 35,000 apple boxes a year. “Best quality apples grow in moderate to cool temperatures with a reasonable amount of rain, not too much," he said. “But for the last 10 years, we have been seeing very heavy rain and uncertain ‘chilling hours’ which have lowered quality. Himachali apples are not what they used to be. They no longer have the shine and texture they were prized for earlier. For us growers, incurring losses is the new normal. This year, premature leaf fall added another 20% to my recurring losses."

Dimple Panjita, another apple grower from the Shimla-Rohru area, echoed his words. “Prolonged rainfall during the flowering and fruit setting period, inadequate sunshine when the crop was ripening in May-June and an uncertain winter spell have all led to smaller yields and a drop in quality," she said.

Climate of worry

Scientists concur with apple growers. Abnormal climatic factors during flowering and fruit development have played a significant role in lowering apple productivity in the last four years," Rifat Bhat, fruit scientist at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology (SKUAST), said. Like Khimta, she too stressed that temperature was key to apple growing.

“Temperatures of 7 degrees C and below are effective in meeting the chilling requirements of temperate fruits including apples. These are not being met as the winters are no longer cold enough. There is not enough snowfall or rainfall when the apple trees need them most. However, other factors like spring frosts, hailstorms, summer droughts and unseasonal rain have also contributed to the poor flowering and low yields."

For optimal growth, apples require a narrow band of temperature through the year, at least 1,000-1,500 ‘chilling hours’ (at or below 7 degrees C) in winter, and no more than 21-24 degrees C in summer. In the Himalayan area, such a temperature range is only available 1,500-2,700 metres (around 5,000-9,000 ft) above sea level. However, the temperature also has to be moderate in April to allow the apple tree flowers to properly bloom, before the fruit is ready for harvest from mid-September to the end of October.

Too much rain in April or extreme cold at the wrong time can badly affect the crop as well. Temperatures above 24 degrees C in the summer months of May to August can burn the apple’s skin and invite pests like red mite or fungi like Alternaria, apart from various other scab-like growths, a sign of disease. Strong winds or hailstorms during the harvest season can also ravage the crop.

“The last five years have seen excessive rain during the flower blooming period of April which disturbs the pollination cycle," said Naqash Sarwar, former director of Horticulture with the J&K government. “If apple trees seem more disease prone now, it is because of the excess rain." To check disease, apple trees are now sprayed with fungicide and pesticides much more often than before–15 times in a season against five times earlier. Some farmers in Himachal Pradesh have also been spraying sulphur dioxide around apple trees to reduce the impact of solar radiation.

Parmeet Singh, head, Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Shopian, explained why the colour of apples was changing. “Around 10-20% of all apples are now being affected by sunburn as high temperatures break cells in the fruit’s skin," he said. “The attractive deep red colour that Kashmiri apples were known for was due to the moderate to cool temperature during autumn, but now autumn remains too hot for that colour to develop."

Indeed, Javaid Iqbal, head of the Department of Environmental Sciences at SKUAST, maintained that seasons no longer retained their distinctiveness in Kashmir. India has six seasons, known in Kashmiri as sont, grisham, vahraat, harud, vandei and shushur. “Characteristics of one season are often visible in another," he said. “We are often unsure about which season we are in."

It has been observed, for instance, that the flowering season begins earlier now than a few years ago. “It used to be mid-March to April, but the blossoms now sprout two to three weeks earlier," said Shopian Krishi Vigyan Kendra’s Singh.

But is the fall in apple productivity only due to climate change?Javaid Iqbal of SKUAST maintained it is. “To check if climate change is indeed at the root of the problem, we need to observe climate indicators for a specified period of time," he explained. “Carbon dioxide in the air is one such indicator. In the last 30 years, the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has risen from 300 ppm (parts per million) to 450 ppm."

The effects are also just the kind predicted by climate experts, including the press release at the conclusion of UN’s Conference of Parties (COP) 26 in Glasgow in October-November this year, which warned of “climate change induced increase in temperatures, rainfall variation and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events that are adding to pressures on global agricultural and food systems". It further noted that changing climate was also adding to resource problems such as water scarcity and soil degradation.

Tackling the problem

Some apple growers have used shades to guard their trees against intense heat and frostbite during the flowering and fruit forming season, with varying success.

Others have sought to acquire land and plant apple trees at higher altitudes, where chilling hours are so far guaranteed, though it is not known for how long. A decade and a half ago, for instance, there were no apple trees in Himachal Pradesh’s higher reaches, such as Lahaul and Spiti districts—today there are a sizeable number. However, some experts fear this could lead to permanent changes in transpiration patterns that would further encourage erratic weather patterns. But the bulk of farmers are clueless about what to do next.

The government authorities at both Jammu and Kashmir as well as Himachal Pradesh, however, have realized that with no quick solution to the climate crisis in sight, one way out could be for apple growers to employ more resilient varieties of apple plants.

A hardier variety of ‘high density’ (HD) apple has indeed been developed in Italy, and both the governments have been importing these plants to sell to their farmers. The J&K authorities has set itself a target of 5,500 hectares of such plantation within the next five years.

To incentivize apple growers, it is offering a 50% subsidy on the purchase, with financial institutions providing another 40% in credit, so that the buyer needs initially invest only 10% of the cost. HD apple plants come equipped with protection like an anti-hailstorm net and a water supply system to provide water externally, should the need arise.

So far, the HD variety has seen greater acceptance in Himachal Pradesh, where it can also be grown at lower altitudes of 1,000-1,200 metres (3,800-4,500 ft) than the traditional apple trees. However, whether it is a durable alternative in Indian conditions still remains to be seen. Rajesh Khimta, the Shimla-Jubbal apple farmer who imported these plants on his own initiative in 2013–arguably the first in his state to do so–said they, too, were not entirely immune to climatic swings.

In Himachal, apple farmers in areas like Shimla, Mandi and Banjar are also increasingly turning to planting alternative fruit trees such as pomegranate, pear, kiwi and persimmon, which grow at the same or lower heights. Some are also intercropping apples with vegetables or moving to flower cultivation in a big way.

No estimate of the financial losses suffered by either Jammu and Kashmir or Himachal due to wilting apple production has yet been carried out. But experts estimate that it is already considerable.

There is an urgent need for more research into the extent climate change is impacting both apple crop yield and quality, how it can be mitigated, and how such mitigation action can be effectively disseminated among apple farmers.

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