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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Climate change is putting the food security of India at threat

Climate change is putting the food security of India at threat

The country is projected to bear the early brunt of global warming

Heat trapped on Earth is thought to have meddled with monsoon rains.Premium
Heat trapped on Earth is thought to have meddled with monsoon rains.

The world’s most populous nation is more poorly endowed with farmland per capita than Greece or Algeria. That is going to make life harder as a fast warming planet destabilizes the cycles of rain and sunshine that have kept the Indian subcontinent fed for millennia.

India recently suspended exports of non-Basmati varieties of rice after heavy monsoon rainfall damaged crops that were due to be harvested in winter. With rice retail prices up 3% in the past month and 11.5% over the past year, the government hopes to quell food inflation by reserving grain for the domestic market.

Tomato prices have risen fivefold or more in recent months, prompting heists from stores, markets and trucks, and causing farmers to camp out in their fields to protect their produce. A Twitter user said her sister brought 10kg of the vegetable in her luggage during a visit from her home in Dubai. Heavy rainfall in tomato-producing states was the culprit.

Until now, India’s most politically contentious crop has remained largely immune. Onion prices, blamed for the fall of governments in 1980, 1998 and 2014, have only risen modestly in recent months. That’s no guarantee that the situation will stabilize: It’s usually in October and November that prices spike, when the country finds out whether damp weather destroyed the winter crop in storage and the monsoon one in fields. The central government, which faces general elections in 2024, has been stockpiling bulbs to quell such volatility.

Remarkably, India as a whole hasn’t had a particularly unusual monsoon. Rainfall has been about 5% above average levels so far, but total monsoon precipitation typically varies 10% in either direction from year to year. The problem is, this average conceals huge fluctuations across space and time. East of Delhi—especially in the grain-producing breadbaskets of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal—it’s been unusually dry, while western states, where pulses, oilseeds and vegetable crops predominate, have been soaked. The clockwork operation of monsoon has been disrupted, with dry early weeks giving way to unusually wet conditions more recently.

This is what climate models have predicted for decades: a monsoon that grows more intense as the climate heats up, with warmer air carrying more moisture and dumping it in less predictable ways, leading to volatile cycles of drought and flooding. Extreme weather was already costing the country $10 billion in 2017—equalling about 0.4% of its gross domestic product.

There’s a grand injustice to the fact that a nation that accounts for just 3.7% of the world’s historic carbon emissions—a smaller share than Germany—should be facing some of the worst damage. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is responsible for its own policy choices, and many could exacerbate the problems of food security on a warming planet.

India is falling well behind other major auto markets in its shift to electric cars and buses, with single-digit sales percentages last year despite better performances in the three-wheeler and two-wheeler segments. One factor has been the lacklustre rollout of charging stations, with 135 cars per public charger compared to 19 in the US and six in China and the Netherlands.

Where India is succeeding is biofuel. The government is running ahead of its 10% ethanol blending mandate and looks on track to hit a 20% rate by 2025 as it seeks to trim its oil import bill. That puts pressure on farm production, however. Sugarcane is a thirsty crop which needs a whole year or more to grow to maturity. It predominates in many of the northern states which would otherwise grow rice and wheat. Thanks to government pricing levels that make it a profitable crop, the area planted with sugarcane went up around 17% between 2017 and 2022, while rice had an 8% increase and pulse fields shrank by 0.8%. If policymakers want to reduce emissions while cutting the impact of petroleum on India’s balance of payments, they must reverse the current situation of biofuels doing better than electrification.

India needs to lift its renewables game too. The 15.7 gigawatts of wind and solar installed last year is only about half the government’s target and left the country 32% short of its intended target by that date. Planned tenders of 50 gigawatts a year through March 2028 are more ambitious, but they need to be a reality first.

It’s now clear that no country will suffer more from climate change this century than India, but no country is going to see its emissions grow faster over the coming decade. If New Delhi does not want a future of more crop failures, floods, droughts, export bans and farmer suicides, it should do everything that can be done to reverse that trend.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities.

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Published: 26 Jul 2023, 09:24 PM IST
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