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Climate change and India’s Chapati Crisis

The only thing India can possibly do during this year’s global food crisis is to not make it any worse for its own poor. As the cost of basic nutrition balloonseverywhere, the second-most-populous nation’s best bet is to fall back on its extensive system of state procurement and public distribution to soften the blow.

But, around mid-April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised U.S. President Joe Biden that Indiacouldfeed the world. If the World Trade Organization allowedit, “India is ready to supply food stocks to the world from tomorrow,” Modi said, recalling the conversation.

Modi’s ministers and advisers ought to have known better. Just as the Indian leaderwas talking to Biden, the north Indian wheat cropwas being scorched bya deadly heat wave. The Ukraine war and the resulting grainshortage may have presented India with an opportunity to script a role for itselfin internationaltrade, butclimate change and a brewing chapati crisisshould have been reasons to curbthe enthusiasm.

Eventually it had to do just that: In mid-May,Indiaimposed a hasty banon wheat exports to ensure its own food security. It was a repeat of the Covid-19fiasco when Modi bragged about how India, the world’s pharmacy, will save humanity. But a vicious outbreak of the delta variant forced it to backtrack.By March 31, India’s share of the global vaccine trade was just 2.3%.Just as with the pandemic, the ripplesof New Delhi’s wheat flip-flopare being felt internationally.The Group of Seven nations criticized the embargo. ‘If everyone starts to impose export restrictions or to close markets, that would worsen the crisis,’ German agriculture minister Cem Ozdemir said.

Actually, the opposite might be true. From Indonesia’s restrictionson palm-oil shipmentsto Malaysia’s ban on chicken exports, some 30 countries have resorted to such measures. HadIndianot closed its markets, the country might havefaced a shortage ofchapatis —India’s ubiquitous, unleavened daily bread.People, rich or poor, don’t consume wheat; theybuyflour to make chapatis. And this year,there maybe 6.5% fewer chapatis for the same crop as previous harvests, while wheat output itself will likely see its first dip in sevenyears.

In a nutshell, theproblem is this: Last year, onekilo of Indian wheat resulted in about 770 grams of flour. This year, that mightgodown to 720 grams. The hottest March in 122 years hasstuntedgrain formation. In fact, traders are buying wheat that is below their normal flour-yield cut-off level —that would be ascorebelow 76 on a hectoliter test. Now, inferior readings of 72 areacceptable because of the scarcity of good wheat, according to industry sources.

Blame can be laid to theunusually early heat wave that engulfed India and Pakistan, weather that wasmade at least 30 times more likely by human-caused climate change, according to scientists at the World Weather Attributioninitiative.India’scropwill be luckyto exceed100 million tons this year, a steepdecline from the initial government estimate of a record 111million-ton harvest.

Taking 15million metric tonsfrom this total to export to the world —as the government boasted — was more than a little shortsighted.For one, the Food Corporation of India, the state-buying agency, has neglected to fill outits granaries. Last year, it bought 43 million metric tons for its stockpiles. This year’s target has been slashed to less than half of that. Those 19.5 million tons of purchases, plus the 30 million tons currently in FCI storagewill mostlygo into public distribution ifthe Modi administrationextends the free grain program it started during the pandemic. There will be little left in the state’s wheat pool to tamp down any speculative fervorin the domestic open market.

The government isn’t without tools. If prices skyrocket, New Delhi can imposestock limits to force traders to releasetheir hoards. The FCI could also offload more rice than wheatinto the subsidized public distribution system. Most Indian dietsnowadays can accommodate both. This could free up about 10 million tons of wheat to accommodate government-to-government supply deals such as withEgypt.

Still, these are stopgap solutions. The premise of Modi’s failed farm-reform legislation was to give more freedom to farmers to discover free-marketprices for their produce. The about-faceoverwheat shows that when it comes to India’s agriculture, primacy of markets remainsa pipe dream. A limit onsugar exportshas also come up. Unlike wheat, where India is a bit player in global trade, the country is No. 2 in sugar shipments after Brazil. That’s a perfidy in itself because the sweetenerguzzleswater—and by selling it overseas, India exports itsprecious rain.

Maybe the current wheat shortage will ease if, as Lithuania has proposed,a protective corridor for grain shipments from Ukraine ends up breakinga Russian blockade of the Black Sea. With that, the pressure to feed India’s 1.4 billion people mayalso lift. But the long-term threat of climate change won’t go away. As global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius or more above pre-industrial levels, the country’s chapati challenge is only going to become more urgent.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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