Sunday, June 14, 2009

Are We Heading For A Drought?

The agriculture ministry is preparing a contingency plan to prevent food shortage

12 June 2009


For the first time in 30 years, India stares at the probability of a drought, which threatens to worsen the already precarious food demand-supply balance and plunge the country into a deeper food security crisis.
The agriculture ministry is preparing a contingency plan to prevent food shortage if the monsoon fails this year. The alarm has been raised by the latest forecast from the Indian Meteorological Department’s dynamic and statistical models, which indicate the probability of a weak La Nina (cold ocean temperature in the Pacific region) and El Nino (warm ocean temperature in the Pacific region) till May end.
“There is considerable uncertainty in the El Nino forecasts. That could mean a disturbed monsoon for India,” says a senior official in the department. Experts, however, say conditions could well change between June and September.
If that uncertainty becomes a certainty, top agriculture ministry officials say it will surely jeopardise India’s food security. Because if the monsoon fails, India will be unable to even produce what it procured this year — 23.3 million tonnes of wheat and 29 million tonnes of rice as on 31 May. While currently there is no demand-supply gap, traditionally the gap tends to widen from 20-40 million tonnes for wheat and about 30 million tonnes of rice.
However, Ashok Gulati, director in Asia for International Food Policy Research Institute, feels that the concern is unwarranted now as monsoon may revive. “[Even if it fails], we have more than 50 million tonnes of wheat and rice stocks that can sustain two droughts,” he says. Agrees Kalyan Chakravarthy, country head (food and agriculture division) of Yes Bank, “The global wheat and rice situation is good this year; in a worst-case scenario, we can import.”
But demand would surge when the government begins to implement the scheme of distributing 25 kg of rice or wheat a month at Rs 3 per kg for all below-poverty-line families through the National Food Security Act. Plus, hoarding (which becomes rampant when demand surges) can upset the planning, says Vijay Sardana, director of Achievers’ Resources India, a Delhi-based agribusiness knowledge services company.
He adds that there is a need to look beyond wheat and rice, particularly in view of the recent trend of diversion of food crops for biofuels. Food security needs a stronger production response based on tackling supply-side problems in the food grains sector such as development of seeds that could grow even in extreme weather conditions. “We also need to look at non-tasty, but nutrient-rich coarse grain food for human consumption to meet any eventuality in food security,” says Sardana. “The government’s obsession with wheat and rice as an answer to food security is a wrong approach.”
M.S. Swaminathan Foundation has already undertaken many projects in India to demonstrate that food grains can be successfully grown in changed weather conditions without impacting the yield of the crop. One such project in the North-East successfully showcased that rice can be grown in flood situations. Also, Jain Irrigation Systems worked out Ultra High Density Plantation (UHDP) for mangoes in Coimbatore that allows harvesting in 4-5 years as against 12-15 years traditionally.
But with Indian Meteorological Department ‘officially’ announcing that there is a 95 per cent possibility of a successful monsoon, has the agriculture ministry raised a false alarm? “We should not underestimate the change in global weather and should have alternative systems in place,” says S.D. Sundar Singh, head of agriculture technology at Jain Irrigation Systems.
Because if the rain fails this year, farmers may well start organising marriages of frogs, as they do in Assam to please the rain gods.
M. Rajendran
(Busineeworld Issue Dated 16-22 June 2009)

Indian Met Department recent press release (10June2009):-
India's annual monsoon rains for the week ended June 10 were 37% below normal, the India Meteorological Department said Thursday. The rainfall stood at 17.5 millimeter compared with normal rains of 27.8 mm during the period, the department said on its Web site. India's rains, currently in a weak phase, are unlikely to revive over the next one week, the weather body said earlier Thursday. India's June-September monsoon season is important for the country's summer-sown crops, including oilseeds, rice and sugar cane, as 60% of the fields are rain-fed.  


No comments: