Heat wave scorches India’s wheat crop, export plans falter

NEW DELHI — An unusually early, record-shattering heat wave in India has plunged wheat yields, raising questions about how the country will balance its domestic needs with ambitions to increase exports and offset the deficits caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine .

Gigantic landfills in the Indian capital New Delhi have been set on fire in recent weeks. Schools in the eastern Indian state of Odisha have been closed for a week and schools in neighboring West Bengal are stocking oral rehydration salts for children. On Tuesday, Rajgarh, a city of more than 1.5 million people in central India, was the hottest in the country, with daytime temperatures peaking at 46.5 degrees Celsius (114.08 Fahrenheit). In nine other cities, temperatures exceeded 45 C (113 F).

But it was the heat in March – the hottest in India since record-keeping in 1901 – that hampered the harvest. Wheat is very sensitive to heat, especially during the final stage when the grains ripen and ripen. Indian farmers time their plantings to coincide with the generally cooler spring in India.

Climate change has made the heat wave in India hotter, says Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College of London. She said that before human activities caused global temperatures to rise, heatwaves like this year’s would have hit India once every roughly half a century.

“But now it’s much more common — we can expect such high temperatures about once every four years,” she said.

India’s vulnerability to extreme heat increased by 15% between 1990 and 2019, according to a 2021 report from the medical journal The Lancet. It is among the top five countries where vulnerable people, such as the elderly and the poor, are most exposed to heat. It and Brazil have the highest heat-related deaths in the world, the report said.

Farm workers like Baldev Singh are among the most vulnerable. Singh, a farmer in Sangrur in northern India’s Punjab state, watched his crop shrivel before his eyes as a usually cool spring quickly turned into relentless heat. He lost about a fifth of his proceeds. Others lost more.

“I’m afraid the worst is yet to come,” Singh said.

Punjab is India’s “grain bowl” and the government has encouraged the cultivation of wheat and rice here since the 1960s. It is typically the largest contributor to India’s national reserves and the government had hoped to buy about a third of the region’s stock this year. But government assessments predict lower yields this year, and Devinder Sharma, an agricultural policy expert in the northern city of Chandigarh, said he expected 25% less.

The story is the same in other major wheat producing states such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

In total, India purchased more than 43 million metric tons (47.3 million US metric tons) of wheat in 2021. Sharma estimates it will instead get 20% to almost 50% less.

Although it is the second largest wheat producer in the world, India only exports a small part of its crop. It had tried to take advantage of the global disruption to wheat supplies caused by the Russian war in Ukraine and find new markets for its wheat in Europe, Africa and Asia.

That looks uncertain, given the difficult balance that the government must maintain between supply and demand. It needs about 25 million tons (27.5 million U.S. metric tons) of wheat for its comprehensive food-welfare program that usually feeds more than 80 million people.

Before the pandemic, India had huge reserves far exceeding its domestic needs – a buffer against the risk of famine.

Those reserves are strained, Sharma said, due to the distribution of free grain during the pandemic to about 800 million people — vulnerable groups such as migrant workers. The program was extended until September, but it is unclear if it will continue after that.

“We no longer have such a surplus. † † With exports picking up, there would be a lot of pressure on the domestic availability of wheat,” Sharma said.

India’s Federal Ministries of Agriculture and Trade did not respond to inquiries sent to them via email.

Outside of India, other countries are also struggling with poor harvests that are hampering their ability to help make up for the potential shortage of supplies from Russia and Ukraine, normally the world’s largest and fifth largest exporters of wheat.

China’s Agriculture Minister Tang Renjian said last month that winter wheat harvests are likely to be poor, hampered by flooding and planting delays.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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