India’s agricultural sector faces a significant threat from climate change as scientists record rising temperatures. Economists estimate that climate change has led to a loss of 1.5 percent of India’s GDP. Agriculture remains hugely important for India’s economy, as it accounts for nearly 15 percent of India’s GDP, and employs 47 percent of the nation’s labor force. Given the dramatic impact that climate change has on this sector, the government of India must craft new and more effective policies to mitigate the impact of this phenomenon.
Impact of Climate Change on the Agricultural Sector
Climate change directly impacts the daily lives of farmers in India. A leading study conducted by 29 researchers around the world, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has outlined how climate change is causing lower crop yields around the world. In particular, the study found that “each degree-Celsius increase in global mean temperature would, on average, reduce global yields of wheat by 6.0%, rice by 3.2%, maize by 7.4%, and soybean by 3.1%.”
While the study does state that these numbers differ from region to region, further studies have investigated the impact on crop yield in India itself. A study published in the Journal of Climatology & Weather Forecasting found that crop yields in India’s two crop production seasons, the kharif (influenced by the southwest monsoon) and rabi (influenced by the northeast monsoon), would face nearly 3 percent to 5 percent reductions in crop yields for every 1° F increase in the temperature. Furthermore, the International Food Policy Research Institute discovered that “rice production will decline by 14% by 2050 in South Asia; wheat by nearly 49% and maize, millets and sorghum by around 19% over the same period.”
Such a deleterious effect on crop yields compounds the already serious challenge of food security in India. Its agricultural sector already suffers from low productivity, as compared to the rest of the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that India’s cereal yield (2,993 kg per hectare), as of 2016, is drastically lower than in North America (7318 kg per ha), East Asia and the Pacific (5,976 kg per ha), and Europe (4,155 kg per ha).
The adverse impacts of lower crop yields caused by climate change go far beyond the income of farmers, but have also been linked to one of India’s most serious problems: farmer suicides. A study conducted at the University of California – Berkeley estimated that climate change could have contributed the deaths of 59,300 farmers or farm workers over the last 30 years. While observers have pointed out that the study assumes that economic hardship caused by reduced crop yield due to elevated temperature is directly responsible for suicides, the author argues that “the robustness of the effect of growing season temperature on suicide rates across many specifications and subsamples makes such confounding factors extremely unlikely.”
The Need for Mitigation Policies
Given the wide-reaching impact of climate change on the Indian agricultural sector, the government must craft new, more effective policies to mitigate its impact. In particular, the government should incentivize farmers to use climate-tolerant crop varieties and adopt efficient irrigation technologies, as well as invest resources in conservation agriculture and agroforestry.
India has already experimented with climate-tolerant crop varieties before. In 2010, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines distributed flood-tolerant seeds of Swarna-sub1 rice to 100,000 farmers. The rice, which can tolerate complete submergence for 14 to 17 days, is said to be 99 percent similar to organic Swarna crop. The government should study the feasibility of other such climate-resistant crops, and work with researchers, suppliers, and farmers to provide affordable access to such seeds.
The government must also incentivize farmers to use more efficient irrigation systems. This publication has previously discussed how the availability of irrigation water in India is inadequate and susceptible to climatic change, while prevailing irrigation patterns are highly inefficient and energy intensive. The government has already launched a subsidy of Rs. 96.32 lakh ($150,355) to encourage farmers to use drip irrigation methods. However, this step has not done enough. Indian agricultural producers remain among the world’s least efficient, consuming 83 percent of India’s total water resources. The government of India must move toward efficient water usage in this sector, an act which could significantly mitigate the risks of climate change.
Finally, India should also consider the potential of climate-smart interventions based in agro-ecology as the risk from climate change manifests more seriously. Agricultural experts are increasingly vocal in emphasizing that a shift to agro-ecology could be extremely beneficial for farmers while protecting them from the adverse effects of climate change continues to grow louder, particularly in the Gangetic Plan of Northern India and dryland agriculture systems in southern and western parts of India. Policy options as part of this move include establishing agro-ecological zones and farms, establishing weather-based insurance programs, and leveraging Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to disseminate information to farmers as well as establish more efficient value chains. Such a shift in policy direction could be risky, as scientists predict an initial decline in crop yields. However, recent studies by the Rodale Institute have highlighted that after a brief transition period of three to five years, ecological agriculture yields could rebound to equal those of industrial agriculture.
India was one of the birthplaces of the Green Revolution, bringing India from the brink of famine and ushering in a new age of efficiency and prosperity in India’s agricultural system. This was possible because the government of India took it upon itself to craft and implement effective policy. Given the breadth and scope of the adverse impact of climate change and rising temperatures on the agricultural sector in India, the government must, again, take new, concrete steps to mitigate these risks and protect millions of farmers and farm workers.
Aman Thakker is an Analyst with Protagonist (formerly Monitor 360) and a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He writes about Indian foreign and domestic policy.