Jagtar Singh lost his cotton crop twice. In just over two weeks. First, it was the rains that lashed Chaina village in Punjab’s Faridkot district in the first week of May, just after sowing. The unseasonal rains killed them before they could even germinate.
On second sowing, the seeds did germinate. But the crop couldn’t withstand the severe heatwave around 15-20 May, which again, was “extremely uncharacteristic” Singh says over the phone.
“Hundreds of farmers lost their entire crop in the village, which has never happened before.”
Earlier this year, a similar story played out with wheat. Kashmir Singh, a farmer from Gurdaspur, also in Punjab, says yields fell by 100 kg per acre across his 50-acre farm, leading to a loss of close to Rs 1 lakh. Wheat yields declined about 20% this year in the Malwa belt of Punjab due to warmer winter nights, says Umendra Dutt, executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission, a non-profit, though detailed data is sparse.
According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2019, India is the 14th most vulnerable nation in the world to the impacts of climate change, in between Niger (15th) and Antigua and Barbuda (13th).
With every increase in temperature of 1 degree Celsius, global wheat production is estimated to fall by 6%. India’s mean land surface air temperature in 2018 was 0.41 degrees Celsius above the 1981-2010 average, according to the Meteorological Department.
And agriculture in India, where six in 10 farmers rely on rains to water their crops, is becoming trickier every season as extreme weather events become more frequent. Warmer weather is altering crop seasons and harvest areas and also improving conditions for pests. Erratic rainfall is causing droughts across vast swathes of agricultural land and flooding in many other parts of the country.
All of this is changing just how everything from rice to apples is being grown—in the process threatening livelihoods and food security for decades to come.
Wheat feels the heat
The worst hit by changes in weather are the rabi or winter crops and fruits, say experts. Rising temperatures and warmer winter nights are causing a condition known as terminal heat stress which is hurting wheat production from Punjab in the north to Bihar in the east.
The wheat cycle is getting delayed due to a late harvest of rice as a result of the late onset of the monsoon. When it gets to the grain filling stage (when dry matter accumulates in the plant and ends up splitting into the grain, determining the grain weight), nights start getting warmer, which stunts the growth of the kernel, resulting in lower yields.
“Wheat is also facing frequent cases of frost-like conditions,” says S.K.