Climate change on track to create food insecurity in India?

Originally published in The Policy Times here

Written by Sourajit Aiyer

Countries in the tropical zone are most vulnerable to climate risk. Very few countries in this zone have a population comparable to that of India. Indonesia and Brazil, the next populous, each have a population less than one-fifth that of India. At the same time, both Indonesia and Brazil are relatively better-off than India. Their per capita GDP (PPP basis) is ~1.5 to 1.7 times higher than that of India, enhancing their ability to withstand climate shocks. Along with lower income, India’s Gini coefficient of the income distribution rose from 45 in 1990 to 51 in 2016-17, indicating the growing gap between the rich and poor. As it is, economic growth, critical to creating jobs in a country of India’s size, has already been impacted by 30% owing to the impact of climate change.

The Indian Meteorological Department’s Climate of India 2018 report called 2018 as the sixth warmest year in the country’s history since 1901, with all the previous five warmest years occurring in the last decade. While the average temperature in the country from 1901 to 2018 was 0.6 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900 AD), it was 0.4 degrees Celsius above the 1981-2010 average, indicating the surge in this millennium. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s findings shows that the climate impact due to an incremental 0.5 degrees Celsius (from 1.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level) would expose 2.6 times more people to extreme heat.

In short, India is experiencing increasing instances of climate vagaries. It has a huge population that is poorer relative to other nations and whose poor have grown poorer within the country – worrying enough! But while India is doing a lot to tackle climate risk, there are some concerns set to impact food availability, and hence food security.

Agriculture, a major cause of emissions of greenhouse gases along with energy, transport, and industry has been largely ignored in India’s efforts to address climate risks, which has rather concentrated on renewable energy and urban transport. Globally, food production is seeing a significant impact owing to climate change, and given India’s population growth estimates, food security can become a bigger challenge in the years to come. Thus, India cannot push agriculture to the backburner. As it is, the Global Hunger Index ranks India dismally on all the parameters like food availability, nutrition, child wasting, and stunting, indicating the population is already vulnerable.

A rise in extreme rainfall and droughts in India has reduced crop yields as it impacted water availability in the fields, affected soil fertility and incidences of pest and plant diseases, etc. Going ahead, crop yield is estimated to decline by as much as 25%. Extreme heat also impacts the health, yield, and fertility of land livestock like cows and buffaloes. Climate impacts acidification and the current in water bodies, which impacts the productivity of fisheries. Both livestock and fisheries are important pieces of India’s policy to increase farm income. As farm income shrinks, it only reduces the farmers’ ability to invest in production, thus reducing future food output and availability.

In a country where a large proportion of farms are dependent on rains and are not connected with irrigation canals, the reduction in the groundwater table would further intensify the challenge to maintain crop yield.

The average holding size of Indian farms is only 1.1 hectares, i.e. over 80% of farmers are smallholder farmers. Climate shocks have severe ramifications on rural livelihoods. An instance of extreme rain, flood or cyclone could create enough devastation to ruin the entire season’s crop. Not only does that impact food production, but it also reduces the farm income to naught. It is no wonder India has witnessed a significant rise in rural migration to urban centers, with erstwhile farmers trying to find an alternative livelihood in urban construction sites.

Climate risk is also affecting the access of food – at the right time at the right place! That gives rise to new challenges to food security. An example is a situation after any natural calamity or disaster. Moreover, child stunting and wasting are often connected with the lack of access to correct food nutrition and this has a life-long impact on the child’s development. With floods impacting India’s cities as much as villages, the issue of the availability of the correct food – at the correct place and time  – is a concern even for urban centers.

While there has been some research, a strategic roadmap is yet to evolve to realign India’s food production according to climate risks. The country needs to promulgate crops that are tolerant of temperature changes. Water efficiency and micro irrigation must be promoted. A distribution mechanism of the correct combination of nutrition, especially during disasters, must be set up.

There is also some discussion that the pressure to improve farm economics compelled many farmers to shift from staple crops to cash crops, implying the production of staple food crops is probably not growing in proportion to the population. While the country can always import food to make up for the shortage, it is already reeling under a sizeable import bill due to its import of crude oil, natural gas, coal, and gold, and any further increase to the import bill would only deepen the trade deficit, even if the food woes are addressed.

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