Climate change is hurting India’s rice crop

In Bithmara in Haryana, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) northwest of the capital, New Delhi, 37-year-old Satish Gangra is distraught after seeing his rice crops damaged by early and continuous rain in early August.

I have to leave farming. The cost is much greater than the output and I am falling into the debt trap.

Every year, Jangra cultivated 3 hectares (8 acres) of his neighbour’s land mostly on rice and other grains such as wheat and millet. This has now been reduced to 1 hectare (3 acres). He is considering either changing the paddy field to another crop type or stopping plowing the land altogether so that he doesn’t have to worry about losses every year.

“You spend thousands on different types of fertilizers, diesel, water, etc., and when it comes time to produce rice in particular, you incur losses,” he told Al Jazeera.

Traders pay according to the quality of the rice, but over time the farmers say the quality has declined.

He still has to pay the $600 loan to the bank and for that, he is now looking for an alternative.

“I started working in a small furniture store because I can’t rely solely on farming,” he said.

In the village of Jamui Bihar in eastern India, farmer Rajkumar Yadav and Gangra collide with problems as he waits for rains so his rice crops won’t dry out.

Every morning and evening, the family of this 55-year-old takes water from their well to spray it on the crops. He says his family can no longer rely on the monsoons.

“In our area, only 10 per cent of the crops have been grown so far due to the lack of rainfall. We all depend on the tubular tubercle. [used to pump groundwater]which also dries up due to high temperatures.

Researchers say rice production in India is constrained by both drought and torrential rains that can flood the fields.

About 68 percent of India’s total crop area is rainfed. Of about 40 million hectares (100 million acres) of rice-harvested area in India, 60 percent is irrigated leaving the rest dependent on rainfall, and thus susceptible to drought.

Climate change in general has increased the likelihood of extreme events, said Aditi Mukherjee, principal investigator at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a nonprofit research organization.

While “the effects of drought can be mitigated to some extent by access to irrigation, parts of India [such as eastern India which is a major rice basket]They do not have adequate and affordable irrigation, and they mostly rely on expensive diesel pumps to run.”

This year’s rice sowing was affected in major rice producing states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, resulting in a 13 percent delay in the acreage planted in rice.

About 40 percent of India’s rice-harvesting area is subject to drought [File: Manish Swarup/AP Photo]

Ban on rice exports?

Mukherjee of the International Water Management Institute told Al Jazeera that it will be a difficult year for farmers.

“Heat waves, which were followed by drought-like conditions due to the late arrival of the monsoons, affected two major crops, wheat in the previous season, and now rice,” she said, adding that such late sowing is likely to affect the yield, as well as delay the next crop cycle.

And while it is not yet clear what kind of shortages will result when the harvest finally comes, the USDA has estimated that rice production could fall by 0.9 percent, the first decline since 2015. This leads experts to say they need to monitor the situation closely, especially If the government decides to ban or restrict its exports, as it did in May for wheat.

Tavseef Mairaj Shah, who works in agroecology, warns that while a ban on rice exports would be disastrous for the global food supply, such a move is currently not expected, although higher rice prices are not far off.

The threat to India’s rice production also comes at a time when countries are already grappling with rising food costs. The drop in output farmers expect could make India’s fight against inflation more difficult and lead to export restrictions.

In India, rice is a staple food for more than half of the population. Bangladesh, China, Nepal, and some Middle Eastern countries are among some of its top customers, with India exporting rice to more than 100 countries.

“India has to take into account the domestic food security aspect. While we currently have grain stocks, we may have to provide protection in case the war in Ukraine continues,” said Srinath Sridhan, an independent market commentator.

Reimagine farming

Congress party supporters chant anti-government slogans during a rally in New Delhi, India.
Rising food prices led to protests [File: AP Photo]

But in the end, to ensure food security, India needs to reimagine its agricultural practices, say the scientists.

“The unprecedented change in rainfall patterns, droughts and extreme heat is a stark reminder that India needs to support and promote the transition from monocropping to multi-cropping systems,” said Rohin Kumar, chief agricultural activist for India’s Greenpeace.

Monoculture kills all the nutrients in the land, which weakens the soil, which in turn hampers the healthy growth of the plant.

With the effects of climate change and severe weather expected to worsen in the coming years, India also needs to create adequate demand and supply of many indigenous grains, vegetables and fruits, with urban communities stepping in to support farmers by purchasing direct from farmers, Kumar said.

Agroecologist Shah agrees that there is an “urgent need” to move to sustainable rice farming methods to improve water-use efficiency, farmers’ livelihoods, and make them able to adapt to changing weather patterns and climate extremes.

While government pressure to make any of these suggestions a reality is currently off the table, farmers like rain-thirsty Yadav have already switched to growing different crops for a living.

“We have started growing coriander, and I think that helps me a little bit to sell it in my village,” he said.

In the village of Jamway, where Yadav lives, besides growing rice and other crops, farmers do organic farming, avoiding the use of chemicals. And while they’ve been at it for six years, they haven’t yet found people willing to pay the premium prices this process requires.

We have tried to raise awareness of organic products but that doesn’t happen often. When it comes to profit, no one thinks of farms.

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