Climate change, extreme weather and food security

Why tackling climate change is key to tackling hunger issues

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Climate change, as admitted by Met experts, has also started impacting the monsoon system, which is so crucial for India’s agriculture, food security, and overall economy. Photo Matt Palmer

In our last editorial, we referred to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Food Policy 2022 report, which estimates that climate change could escalate the hunger issue among Indians by 2030. Climate change is real and already impacting weather systems across the world.

In India, climate change is leading to extreme weather events such as last year’s scorching heat wave that began as early as March, and erratic and intense rainfall events. Climate change, as admitted by Met experts, has also started impacting the monsoon system, which is so crucial for India’s agriculture, food security, and overall economy.

In the 2021-2022 rabi season, the prolonged heat wave had a damaging effect on wheat cultivation, prompting the government to clamp down on wheat exports to meet domestic needs. India’s wheat output in 2022 fell to 106.84 million tons from 109.59 million tons in 2021.

It’s a different matter that this year, production is expected to jump this year as farmers have expanded cultivation acreages in the backdrop of higher prices and favorable weather conditions in the key states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana till January end. But then, February has started on a warmer note, with temperatures hovering a few degrees above normal across the wheat-growing states.

Likewise, in 2022, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) predicted a normal monsoon, which in fact ended on a ‘normal’ note as far as the overall average is concerned. But the monsoon was also marked by sudden intense and erratic localized rainfall. If some parts of India were deluged in April, May, and June, other parts remained bone dry. After June, the tables turned. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat, mostly dry states, were grappling with floods while the Northeastern states faced a deficit. The extreme rainfall also destroyed standing crops in many states. In 2022, there were 1,874 instances of very heavy rainfall and 296 extremely heavy rainfall events, as per IMD data.

In 2022, the monsoon was late in the key rice-growing states along the Indo-Gangetic plains, delaying the Kharif sowing season. Many farmers shifted to millets and other crops that need less water at the last moment. Fortunately the late rains helped the 2022-23 rabi crop and the Kharif deficit was reduced to a large extent. Much of India’s agricultural economy, which accounts for an estimated 11% of the gross domestic product, depends on the monsoon.

Climate change has made weather forecasting extremely difficult. Farmers, and in fact the entire economic chain, wait for the IMD’s annual monsoon forecast, which is so vital for the planning ecosystem, be it for the food and allied segments or for other sectors, which are interdependent on each other.

Experts call for a change in the weather forecast model that takes into account short-range predictions and accurate sudden weather events as the long-range formula is going haywire in the backdrop of climate change. A model that is more localized to help the farmers of different geographical areas plan better because what may work in the northern plains may not work for the northeast or the south.

Many world bodies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, have warned that the world’s ability to nourish its population is under threat and sustainable agrifood systems will be impossible to achieve without broader socioeconomic and environmental change. By 2050, there will be 10 billion people in the world to feed and this will be an unprecedented challenge if significant attempts are not made to reverse current trends.

A chunk of these 10 billion people would be in South Asia, more so in the Indian subcontinent, arguably the world’s most densely populated areas that are prone to extreme weather events. As such, mitigating climate change effects is one vital link in the chain to achieving food security. And the need of the hour is to go beyond just meetings and policy statements and get cracking on the ground.

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