Analysis | How farmers, policymakers can brace for uncertain weather patterns

Analysis | How farmers, policymakers can brace for uncertain weather patterns

India is among the worst affected globally by climate change, with its agriculture sector hit hard by rising temperatures, freak rainfall, and changing seasons.
Over the past few months, large swathes of the sub-continent have witnessed heat alerts in February, followed by untimely rains and weather events, including hailstorms.

The stereotypical representation of the Indian farmer peering at the skies as he waits for the onset of the monsoon is an enduring one. Unfortunately, not much has changed for millions, who continue to be dependent on the annual monsoon showers and are impacted by the intensifying vagaries of nature that are exacerbated by climate change.

Intense heatwaves threaten farm productivity even as the winters shorten, unseasonal rains and hailstorms destroy standing crops, and the spectre of below-normal monsoon rainfall risks incomes, growth and inflation.

“Agrarian seasons in India have been shifting for the past one or two years now,” Indra Shekhar Singh, an independent agriculture analyst told Moneycontrol. “The conventional wisdom is not working anymore.”

Over the past few months, large swathes of the sub-continent have witnessed heat alerts in February, followed by untimely rains and weather events, including hailstorms.

In the Himalayas, the snow is melting earlier than usual and the trees are growing shoots faster. Last year, the winter-sown wheat harvest in the wheat bowl of India was hit by high temperatures followed by untimely showers. In the southern state of Telangana, the onset of monsoon was delayed by a month. India banned wheat exports and also curbed rice shipments amid concerns about food security after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in March warned that the world’s ecosystem might face irrevocable damage as the 1.5-degree Celsius warming limit would be breached by the 2030s. India faces the risks of extreme heat, cyclones, and water management issues.

While climate change reduces crop yields and lowers the nutrition quality of produce, the hit goes beyond this.

Heightened weather risks

After experiencing the warmest February since 1877, during the April to June period, most parts of the country are expected to experience above- normal maximum temperatures, except for South Peninsular India and some parts of Northwest India where normal to below normal maximum temperatures are likely.

Above-normal heatwave days are likely to occur over most parts of central, east and northwest India during the hot weather season, according to the Indian weather office.

Moreover, El Nino threatens monsoon showers. The weather phenomenon is characterised by an abnormal warming of the Pacific Ocean and can adversely affect the monsoon in India, leading to droughts and below-normal rainfall.

The earlier El Niño years such as 2009, 2014, 2015, and 2018 witnessed a poor southwest monsoon, leading to droughts and crop failures in India.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) defines normal monsoon as seasonal rainfall between 96 percent and 104 percent of the long-term, or 50-year, average, which is currently 87 centimetres.

In 2022, the June-to-September rains were at 6 percent above normal but the skewed rainfall distribution hurt the crop. The distribution of rains was uneven through the different states with delayed withdrawal.

The June-to-September monsoon is significant for the overall economy because it accounts for 70 percent of the annual rainfall in a country where about half of the farmlands depend on annual showers for irrigation. Agriculture, which employs more than half of the workforce in the world’s second-most populous country, makes up about 15 percent of India’s economic output.

Delayed onset or belated withdrawal with bouts of excessive showers threaten farm produce.

In terms of the sowing pattern, the quantity of rain is not important but the geographical distribution is, according to Sanjay Gupta, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of National Commodities Management Services Limited (NCML).

“If the rain quantum is less, but the distribution is very good, there won’t be much impact,” Gupta added.

Sowing in India typically happens in the months of June and July, by when due to the high temperatures, the residual moisture in the soil gets evaporated, making the onset crucial.

Things worsen when despite a normal monsoon, one state sees flooding, while another has a drought.

Government action so far

The government is aware of the impact of climate change on agriculture and farmers’ lives and has carried out climate-change impact assessment using the crop simulation models by incorporating the projected climates of 2050 and 2080, according to Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar.

In the absence of adaptation measures, rain-fed rice yields are projected to reduce by 20 percent in 2050 and 47 percent in 2080 scenarios. Irrigated rice yields are projected to reduce by 3.5 percent in 2050 and 5 percent in 2080 scenarios, the minister told Parliament in a written response in March.

Climate change is projected to reduce wheat yields by 19.3 percent in 2050 and 40 percent in 2080 scenarios, with significant spatial and temporal variations.

Meanwhile, climate change is projected to reduce the kharif maize yields by 18 percent and 23 percent in 2050 and 2080 scenarios, respectively, according to the government.

To be sure, the government has moved to make agriculture more resilient to climate change by launching the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture as one of the missions within the National Action Plan on Climate Change.

States are also doing their bit. As many as 34 states and union territories have State Action Plans for Climate Change in place to address sector-specific and cross-sectoral priority actions for combating climate change. For example, the action plan for Maharashtra includes strategies for agriculture, water, forestry, health and disaster management, among other areas.

The Union government also launched the National Innovations in Climate Resilient Agriculture in 2011 to develop and promote climate-resilient technologies in agriculture, and to help regions prone to extreme weather conditions like droughts, floods, frost, heat waves, etc. to cope with such extreme events.

The plan is to evolve crop varieties and management practices for adaptation and mitigation.

Since 2014, 1,888 climate-resilient varieties have been developed, besides 68 location-specific climate-resilient technologies have been developed and demonstrated for wider adoption among farming communities, according to the agriculture minister.

Moreover, the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare is concerned with providing relief to farmers who have lost their crops due to drought, hailstorms, pest attacks or cold waves/frost. The allocation and release of these funds come from the states.

The weather office also issues weather advisories twice a week to crores of farmers of the country through a portal, WhatsApp groups and SMS services.

However, more needs to be done.

What needs to be done

Crop diversification is one of the key areas that India needs to focus on in order to beat the climate challenge, according to experts.

As such, farmers already practice multi-cropping on a limited scale but is often done sporadically and not scientifically.

For instance, in the face of adverse weather predictions, a farm can be split into sowing long-duration paddy, and for short-duration crops like mustard or vegetables.

But, “they don’t really plan it well. The decision will happen only at the time of onset of rains,” NCML’s Sanjay Gupta said. “If the weather changes persist for a few years, then the cropping pattern undergoes a change.”

The government is also keen to push for crop diversification and is seeking to boost production of millets, oilseeds and horticulture produce.

India’s farms need “more genetic diversity”, Indra Shekhar Singh said.

“This is something that is already happening but the process is slow. Typically, entire villages end up planting only one type of seed, which makes the entire area prone to pest or weather events,” he added.

The government needs to push the envelope on popularising alternative crops and cropping patterns like inter-crop and multi-crop, the expert said.

He cites the example of women networks which practice organic farming in Telangana, growing a couple of dozen varieties of crops on their small farms.

Even if six crops or varieties fail, they have several more that can ensure food surpluses for the market.

Singh recommends financial incentives for farmers to move into organic production and horticulture to ensure that more land is converted away from the monocultures of rice and wheat.

A more comprehensive crop insurance plan to cover climate-related damages will also go a long way in ameliorating farmer distress in the short term as climate changes persist. These can be backed by third-party assessments based on meteorological and land-use reports.

Improving weather forecasting and relying on artificial intelligence-led models that predict crop yields may also help.

Still, all this may not be enough in the short run. The farmer will likely continue being at the mercy of nature, exposed to its long-term changes.

“Weather forces are something to reckon with,” said Sandeep Sabharwal, CEO of Sohan Lal Commodity Management Pvt Ltd Group. “It is for the entire generation to tackle.”


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