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How The Heat Wave Will Affect Your Kitchen

By Sanjeeb Mukherjee Shreya Jai
May 02, 2024 11:12 IST
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Apart from the human body, human food will bear direct repercussions. From staples such as wheat, to coffee, dairy, and even the great Hilsa face the threat of reduced supply due to the extreme heat.

IMAGE: Customers buy fruits and vegetables at an open air evening market in Ahmedabad. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

Despite the cheery news of a normal monsoon this year, all forecasts have a similar warning: It is going to be a harsh summer.

Between April and June, there will be more than 10 to 20 extreme heatwave days, double of last year, says the India Meteorological Department.

The mercury is expected to touch a new high, both at maximum as well as minimum temperature, and scientists are of the view it will breach the limits of human survivability.

Apart from the human body, human food will bear direct repercussions. From staples such as wheat, to coffee, dairy, and even the great Hilsa face the threat of reduced supply due to the extreme heat.

This year, though, wheat, one of the main cereals grown during the rabi season, has escaped the wrath of a scorching summer as most of the crop was already harvested or in a growth stage where heat did not affect the yields much.

But fears remain.

Due to the heat wave, not only will your vegetarian and non-vegetarian thaali cost more, it could also taste different. Besides, the markets expect a spike in prices and a shift in the existing supply chains.

IMAGE: Workers sift wheat before filling in sacks at the Agriculture Product Marketing Committee market yard on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

Scorching fields

Extreme heat conditions in parts of India, starting March, make wheat most vulnerable. Veggies follow closely.

India is the world's second biggest wheat producer as well as consumer.

Recent research by Uncharted Waters, a not-for-profit organisation that has compiled 30 years of data, says a cold winter followed by a hot spring can depress wheat yields by roughly 20 per cent in important producing states.

This is a far greater reduction than in consistently hotter or colder years.

The paper concludes this might translate into a 5 to 10 per cent reduction in overall wheat production.

Grown during the winter months, wheat is harvested by the end of spring, before high temperatures can affect grain filling and suppress yields.

If it is planted late, or grows slower because of below average temperatures, and summer heat arrives early, serious harm can be done to the crop.

This is exactly what has been happening in India. A new study by Climate Trends found a significant increase in the likelihood of dangerously hot weather during late March and early April, compared to the 1970s.

This roughly translates into a shortening of the spring season, with summer arriving early and staying longer.

The silver lining is that this year in most places wheat crop was in its grain filling and maturing stage when temperatures started rising and even if daytime temperatures crossed 37 degrees Celsius in some places, it did not affect yields.

But it is not just about heat; unseasonal rains and hailstorms are also a direct fallout of global warming and present a threat. There have already been reports of rain, thunder, and even hailstorm inundation fields.

IMAGE: Labourers load vegetables on a bicycle at a fruit and vegetable wholesale market in Mumbai. Photograph: Niharika Kulkarni/Reuters

Simmering supply chains

As the mercury rises, the chances of spoilage increase. Low levels of proper cold storage and chilling facilities make fruits and vegetables vulnerable to damage from heat.

Milk supplies go down faster than expected due to hot weather. As fresh liquid milk supplies go down abnormally, the reliance on stored skimmed milk powder (SMP) goes up.

From March, milk supplies decline anyway, because of less water being available for cattle and the dairy industry relying on stocks of SMP to meet the regular demand.

But, with extreme heat, even these limited supplies get impacted as fresh fodder becomes scarce.

Fish is not spared. The United Nations Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in one of its assessment reports, said that due to adverse effects of climate change, production of commercial fish species such as Hilsa and Bombay Duck will go down, and labour capacity in agriculture will drop.

Your morning cuppa is not safe, either. India's robusta= coffee prices have touched an all-time high of more than Rs 10,000 for a 50-kg bag on the back of strong demand coinciding with dwindling supplies.

Usually, robusta prices are between Rs 2,500 and Rs 3,500 per 5-kg bag. This year the production took a hit due to uneven rains, drought, and heat waves caused by the El Nino.

As global supplies were stretched, Indian markets went up in anticipation of rising demand. India is the world's sixth largest coffee producer, with Brazil leading the pack.

IMAGE: An agriculture worker dries the freshly harvested corn in a paddy field, at Mayang village, in Morigaon, Assam. Photograph: ANI Photo

Reimagining agriculture

Experts say climate change will exacerbate the price spikes in food crops in India, eventually causing intense economic and social vulnerability.

Last year between May and June, the cost of a shopping basket of typical food items almost tripled between May and June, according to an analysis by Climate Trends.

In the long term, an IPCC analysis said, rice, wheat, pulses, coarse and cereal yields could fall almost 9 per cent by 2050. In southern parts of the country, maize production could drop by almost 17 per cent.

These disruptions to crop production are expected to cause price spikes in India, threatening food affordability, food security and economic growth, IPCC said.

The supply chain will need realigning, as extreme weather events cause companies to change their sourcing plans and strategies and adopt sustainable methods of procurement.

Extreme weather events, such as the 2022 heatwave, are now 30 times more likely, impacting crops like wheat, maize, and soybeans.

The consequences ripple through every facet of Indian life, from the 153 billion work hours lost globally in 2017, predominantly in agriculture, to 90 per cent of India being at high risk of climate-induced heatwaves, imperilling food security and Sustainable Development Goals, says Anjal Prakash, Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, and an author of the above-mentioned IPCC report.

Professor Prakash is of the opinion that as the climate crisis tightens its grip, diversification of crops and resilient agricultural practices would help navigate the storm and secure a sustainable future.

The Union government is developing mechanisms and ground-level programmes to build climate resilient agriculture.

The National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) is one of the eight missions under India's National Action Plan on Climate Change.

The ministry of agriculture said in Parliament last August that 1,888 climate-resilient crop varieties had been developed under NMSA, and that 68 climate-resilient technologies had been demonstrated in 454 villages on 15,857 farmers fields during 2014-23.

During India's G20 presidency, the member nations committed to accelerating innovations and investment focused on increasing agricultural productivity, reducing food loss and waste across the value chain, and improving marketing and storage to build more sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture and food systems.

The results of these promises need to be delivered before the double crisis of inflation and global warming hits us hard.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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Sanjeeb Mukherjee Shreya Jai
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