Rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, droughts, floods and storms will not only reduce yields of staple foods in India but also diminish their nutritional value, putting millions at risk of hunger and malnutrition

Higher temperatures would mean a fall in food harvested in India. (Photo by Michael Foley)

Higher temperatures would mean a fall in food harvested in India. (Photo by Michael Foley)

As climate change pushes heat and humidity to new extremes, vast swathes of South Asia will become too hot to work out in the open, new research shows. For a region where farming is the single largest occupation, this trend spells trouble of the worst kind.

The areas likely to be hardest hit are northern India, Bangladesh and southern Pakistan, home to 1.5 billion people, said the study published in the journal Science Advances this month. These areas are among the poorest in South Asia, with much of the population dependent on subsistence farming that requires long hours of hard labour out in the open and unprotected from the sun.

The latest findings have grave implications for agriculture and it is now clear that India’s long struggle with hunger and food security may have become tougher. The temperature increases are not confined to the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin in the northern part of India. In the southern tip of the country, temperatures may rise by as much as 6 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, according to A Region at Risk: The Human Dimensions of Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific, a report released last month by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Although rice yields in northern India may rise with climate change, yields in the southern states may decline by 5% in the 2030s, 14.5% in the 2050s, and 17% in the 2080s, the report predicted. This is bound to affect the food security situation in India, which already has the highest incidence of malnutrition among children in the world. “Climate change will also make food production in the region more difficult and production costs higher,” the report said. “Food shortages could increase the number of malnourished children in South Asia by 7 million, as import costs will likely increase in the sub-region to USD 15 billion per year compared to USD 2 billion by 2050.”

Agriculture contributes 18% of the gross domestic product in India but provides employment to more than 50% of the workforce, according to World Bank data. The sector contributed to 60% of female and 43% of male employment in India in 2014, the data shows. Over 80% of the water extracted in India is used to irrigate farms, although approximately 60% of the country’s agriculture depends solely on the monsoons.

Farm distress

Even before the effects of climate change make deep inroads, India’s farm sector is battling with a severe crisis. Growth in the sector has stagnated in the past 10 years, and falling incomes have plunged farmers into deep distress. Over 12,000 farmer suicides were reported every year since 2013, the federal government informed the Supreme Court in May 2017. Official surveys have revealed that 42% of farmers are ready to quit agriculture. Right now, around 700 million Indians depend on farming to make a living.

Against this backdrop, it is apparent that the projected fall in farm yields due to climate change could lead to food insecurity among large numbers of people as India becomes the most populous nation of the world in the coming decade.

To compound the issue, scientists have found that a rise in temperature reduces the nutritional value of harvests, particularly rice and wheat, which form the staple food for most Indians. Enhanced levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have a harmful impact on dietary protein intake globally, according to a study published this month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Higher carbon dioxide decreases zinc, iron, proteins in wheat and rice.

Protein deficiency

Wheat and rice, among the crops most sensitive to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, are primary protein sources for 71% of the world’s population. By 2050, 148.4 million people worldwide may be at risk of protein deficiency from rising CO2. In India, which is highly dependent on rice, 53.4 million people may be newly at risk of protein deficiency, the study predicts.

The problem of nutrition security has not escaped attention in India. It was time for a nutrition revolution in India, agriculture scientist M. S. Swaminathan said in Chennai last week. The architect of India’s Green Revolution said we are a country with the largest number of people with malnutrition in the world despite adequate food production and availability of cereals.

“This is a nutrition enigma,” he said. “It calls for a multi-sectoral approach involving agriculture, health and rural development to ensure nutrition for people across the social spectrum.”

In such a scenario, keeping carbon emissions in check is the only way to mitigate the brewing crisis, says ADB. Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, which came into force last November, almost all countries have said they want to limit the rise in average global temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The global surface temperature has already risen by about 1.1 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.

“There is no uncertainty over the adverse effects of observed changes on development in Asia and the Pacific, and over the threat of unrestrained climate change undermining the socioeconomic progress of the region,” the ADB report said. Now it is time to explore opportunities to strengthen climate change adaptation measures in planning and investments across sectors and themes, including agriculture, food security and rural development, water resources, and social and urban development.

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