Climate change and food security in India

Climate change and food security in India

Climate change and food security in India

Hello Aspirants,

The relationship between climate change and food security in India is a critical and complex issue. Climate change poses significant challenges to agricultural productivity, food production, and overall food security in the country. Here’s an overview of how climate change impacts food security in India:

1. Changing Weather Patterns:

Climate change leads to shifts in weather patterns, including changes in temperature and precipitation.
Erratic and unpredictable weather events, such as droughts, floods, and heatwaves, can damage crops and disrupt agricultural activities.
Variability in monsoon patterns can impact rainfed agriculture, which is crucial for India’s food production.
2. Crop Yield Variability:

Rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns affect crop growth, development, and yield.
Crop productivity can be negatively impacted by heat stress during critical growth stages, leading to reduced yields.
Changes in pest and disease dynamics, also influenced by climate change, can further impact crop health.
3. Water Stress:

Climate change exacerbates water stress in India, affecting both irrigation water availability and groundwater recharge.
Decreased water availability can limit agricultural activities, particularly in regions heavily dependent on irrigation.
4. Loss of Biodiversity:

Climate change can lead to shifts in ecosystems and loss of biodiversity, affecting pollination and natural pest control services essential for crop production.
5. Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Agriculture:

Coastal regions in India are vulnerable to sea-level rise, resulting in saltwater intrusion and soil salinization, which negatively affect agriculture.
6. Livelihood Impact:

Agriculture is a significant source of livelihood for millions of people in India. Climate-related disruptions can lead to income losses, particularly for smallholder farmers.
7. Adaptation Strategies:

India has been implementing various adaptation strategies to address the impacts of climate change on food security, including:
Developing drought-resistant and heat-tolerant crop varieties.
Promoting water-efficient irrigation techniques.
Implementing climate-smart agriculture practices.
Enhancing weather forecasting and early warning systems.
8. Policy Initiatives:

The Indian government has launched programs such as the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) to address climate change impacts across various sectors, including agriculture and food security.
9. Socioeconomic Factors:

Socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, limited access to resources, and lack of infrastructure, can exacerbate the impacts of climate change on food security.
10. Global Context:

Addressing climate change and ensuring food security is a global challenge. International efforts, agreements like the Paris Agreement, and cooperation are crucial to mitigate the impacts.
In summary, climate change poses significant threats to food security in India due to its impact on agricultural productivity, water availability, and livelihoods. Efforts to combat these challenges involve implementing adaptation strategies, promoting sustainable agricultural practices, and integrating climate resilience into policy and planning.

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Introduction Climate change and food security in India

At the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are targets to end hunger, achieve food security, and improve nutrition. For India, food security continues to be high on its list of development priorities because the country’s relatively high rates of economic growth have not led to a reduction in hunger and undernutrition. India’s gross domestic product at factor cost and per capita income grew at seven percent and five percent per annum, respectively, from 1990-91 to 2013-14. However, the incidence of undernutrition has dropped only marginally from 210.1 million in 1990 to 194.6 million in 2014, and India has failed to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. About 12 Indian states fall under the ‘alarming’ category of the Global Hunger Index. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, the proportion of children under five years who are underweight is significantly high in states such as Bihar (43.9 percent), Madhya Pradesh (42.8 percent) and Andhra Pradesh (31.9 percent).

While large sections of the Indian population suffer from acute undernutrition, rising incomes and growing urbanisation are rapidly changing the composition of the food basket — away from cereals to high-value agricultural commodities such as fish and meat.  As a result, the total demand for foodgrains is projected to be higher in the future due to an increase in population as well as a growing indirect demand from the feed. Mittal (2008) has made long-term projections of India’s food demand and supply up to 2026. According to her, the increase in total food demand is mainly due to growth in population and per capita income while production is likely to be severely constrained by low yield growth. Moreover, it will be difficult to meet India’s long-term food requirements with domestic production alone. Kumar et al (2009) also find that with current production trends, meeting future demand for foodgrains through domestic production will be difficult.

One of the biggest issues confronting Indian agriculture is low productivity. India’s cereal yields are drastically lower than those of developed regions such as North America (6671 kg per ha), East Asia and the Pacific (5,184 kg per ha), and the Euro area (5855.4 kg per ha) (see Table 1). Table 2 shows that yield per hectare of foodgrains has stagnated in India since the 1980s.

Table 1: Cereal yields (kg per ha, 2013)

Country/ Region
Kg per hectare
East Asia & Pacific (developing only)
Central Europe and the Baltics
Sub-Saharan Africa
Europe & Central Asia (all income levels)
Euro area
North America

Source: World Bank Database

 Table 2: Growth rate of yield per hectare (%) of foodgrains

Coarse Cereals
Total Foodgrains
1980-81 to 1990-91
1990-91 to 2000-01
2000-01 to 2010-11
2010-11 to 2014-15

Source: Reserve Bank of India database

How does climate change affect food security?

The World Food Summit in 1996 defined food security thus: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. According to this definition, there are three main dimensions to food security: food availability, access to food, and food absorption. Thus, adequate food production alone is not a sufficient condition for a country’s food security.

Food security is one of the leading concerns associated with climate change. Climate change affects food security in complex ways. It impacts crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, and can cause grave social and economic consequences in the form of reduced incomes, eroded livelihoods, trade disruption and adverse health impacts. However, it is important to note that the net impact of climate change depends not only on the extent of the climatic shock but also on the underlying vulnerabilities. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (2016), both biophysical and social vulnerabilities determine the net impact of climate change on food security.

Much of the literature on the impact of climate change on food security, however, has focused on just one dimension of food security, i.e., food production. The impact of climate change on the other dimensions of food security — access and utilisation — have received little scholarly attention. This paper explores the impact of climate change on India’s food security by considering all these dimensions of food security.

Food production

Climate change presents an additional stress on India’s long-term food security challenges as it affects food production in many ways. For one, it may cause significant increases in inter-annual and intra-seasonal variability of monsoon rainfall. According to World Bank estimates, based on the International Energy Agency’s current policy scenario and other energy sector economic models, for a global mean warming of 4°C, there will be a 10-percent increase in annual mean monsoon intensity and a 15-percent increase in year-to-year variability in monsoon precipitation. The World Bank (2013) also predicts that droughts will pose an increasing risk in the north-western part of India while southern India will experience an increase in wetness.

The impact of climate change on water availability will be particularly severe for India because large parts of the country already suffer from water scarcity, to begin with, and largely depend on groundwater for irrigation. According to Cruz et al. (2007), the decline in precipitation and droughts in India has led to the drying up of wetlands and severe degradation of ecosystems. About 54 percent of India faces high to extremely high water stress. Large parts of north-western India, notably the states of Punjab and Haryana, which account for the bulk of the country’s rice and wheat output, are extremely water-stressed. Figure 1 shows that groundwater levels are declining across India. About 54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are decreasing, with 16 percent of them decreasing by more than one meter per year. North-western India again stands out as highly vulnerable; of the 550 wells studied in the region, 58 percent had declining groundwater levels. With increased periods of low precipitation and dry spells due to climate change, India’s groundwater resources will become even more important for irrigation, leading to greater pressure on water resources. According to the World Bank projections, with a global mean warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, food water requirements in India will exceed green water availability. The mismatch between demand and supply of water is likely to have far-reaching implications on foodgrain production and India’s food security.

The impact of climate change on water availability will be particularly severe for India because large parts of the country already suffer from water scarcity, to begin with, and largely depend on groundwater for irrigation.

Figure 1: Groundwater level in India (meters below the ground level)

Climate Change, Food Security, SDGs, India
Source: World Resources Institute

Indian agriculture, and thereby India’s food production, is highly vulnerable to climate change largely because the sector continues to be highly sensitive to monsoon variability. After all, about 65 percent of India’s cropped area is rain-fed. Figure 2 shows that most districts with very high and high vulnerability to climate change are in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. Wheat and rice, two crops central to nutrition in India, have been found to be particularly sensitive to climate change. Lobell et al (2012) found that wheat growth in northern India is highly sensitive to temperatures greater than 34°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of 2007 echoed similar concerns on wheat yield: a 0.5°C rise in winter temperature is likely to reduce wheat yield by 0.45 tonnes per hectare in India. Acute water shortage conditions, together with thermal stress, will affect rice productivity even more severely.






Figure 2: Vulnerability of Indian agriculture to Climate Change (2021-2050)

Climate Change, Food Security, SDGs, India, agriculture
Source: CA Rama Rao et al (2013) 

Food access

While there has been considerable progress in understanding the sensitivities of crop production to yield, there are relatively few models which assess the impact of climate change on access to food. According to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, depending on the climate change scenario, 200 to 600 million more people globally could suffer from hunger by 2080 (Yohe et al., 2007). Lloyd et al (2011) also make the projection that climate change will have significant effects on future undernutrition, even when the beneficial effects of economic growth are taken into account. According to their model predictions, there will be a 62-percent increase in severe stunting in South Asia and a 55-percent increase in east and south sub-Saharan Africa by 2050.

It is more difficult to find similar, modelling-based studies on the impact of climate change on food access and nutrition specifically focusing on India. However, noted experts like Nira Ramachandran have underscored the importance of factoring climate change in the discourse on nutrition in the country. Ramachandran warns that climate change can slow down, and even drastically reduce, the improvements in food security and nutrition that India has managed to achieve so far.

Climate change amplifies the economic drivers of food insecurity. Variation in the length of the crop growing season and higher frequency of extreme events due to climate change and the consequent growth of output adversely affect the farmer’s net income. India is particularly vulnerable because its rural areas are home to small and marginal farmers who rely on rain-fed monocropping, which provides barely a few months of food security in a normal year. According to Ramachandran (2014), food stocks begin to run out three or four months after harvest, farm jobs are unavailable and by the next monsoon/sowing season, food shortages peak to hunger.  Climate change will also have an adverse impact on the livelihoods of fishers and forest-dependent people. Landless agricultural labourers wholly dependent on agricultural wages are at the highest risk of losing their access to food.

In regions with high food insecurity and inequality, increased frequency of droughts and floods will affect children more, given their vulnerability. Vedeld et al (2014) conducted a survey of nine villages in the drought-prone Jalna district of Maharashtra and found that local crop yields and annual incomes of farmers dropped by about 60 percent in the drought of 2012-13.  Such a large fall in income is likely to have a huge impact on child nutrition because poor households typically spend the bulk of their earnings on food. In another study based on 14 flooded and 18 non-flooded villages of Jagatsinghpur district in Orissa, Rodriguez-Llanes et al (2011) found that exposure to floods is associated with long-term malnutrition. According to their study, children exposed to floods during their first year of life presented higher levels of chronic malnutrition.

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