Why climate change studies on rice production are important in Wayanad

Area under rice cultivation has been declining rapidly in north Kerala district between 2004-05 and 2018-19 

By Aleena Thomas
Published: Wednesday 25 November 2020

Wayanad in Kerala is known for its traditional rice varieties apart from the district’s unique climate and culture. Even a few decades ago, the farming community cultivated almost 75 traditional rice varieties of rice. Over the years, however, it has narrowed down to 20.

Adukkan, Veliyan, Chenellu, Chomala, Chenthadi, Thondi, Gandhakasala, Jeerakasala, Mullankaima and Kalladiaryan are some of the varieties cultivated by farmers for decades.

Farmers opt for completely organic farming practices for scented rice varieties such as Gandhakasala and Jeerakasala, in order to preserve their fragrance. 

Kerala follows three rice seasons. Wayanad has two: Farmers refer to them as ‘Nanja’ (winter season) and ‘Punja’ (summer season).

Food security is closely related to crop yield; if the reduction in the yield continues, it intensifies global food crisis.

The area under rice cultivation has been declining rapidly, according to an analysis in Wayanad district from 2004-05 to 2018-19 from the Department of Economics and Statistics, Kerala government. In 1985-86, nearly 30,000 hectare was cultivated; by 2009-10 it declined to 12,995 ha and to 7,760 by 2018-19.

The area under cultivation during the winter season steadily decreased 27 per cent from 2013-14 to 2018-19; area under cultivation during summer decreased by 67 per cent in 2018-19 compared to 2013-14.

An analysis carried out in ‘A handbook of transdisciplinary approaches to agro-biodiversity’ talked about a prominent change in Wayanad region from an agrarian economy centred on staple food production to a region of cash crops and plantations.

Rainfall variability, along with other factors such as lack of water availability owing to an increase in runoff, as well as reduction of groundwater recharge, influence a farmer’s decision whether to transform paddy fields for other crops.

Surprisingly, the productivity increased in the last few years. The graph of winter season depicted a gradual increase of 17 per cent in rice productivity from 2010-11 to 2018-19. Summer season also recorded a gradual decrease in productivity except in 2018-19.

The highest rice productivity in recent years was recorded in 2018-19 for both seasons. 2018 was the year of severe floods in Kerala, yet productivity of rice was at an all-time high. Farmers claimed that during the time of severe floods, great amount of alluvial soil was deposited in paddy fields.

This could be a reason for a higher rice production; no scientific study, however, has been carried out to prove the same. A report on the assessment of agro-biodiversity loss by Kerala State Biodiversity Board, 2019, stated that the Wayanad floods severely damaged cash crops. But farmers recovered the loss by using short duration or high-yielding varieties (HYV) of rice.

It is also important to mention that irrigation facilities and introduction of high-yield rice varieties may have caused an increase in rice productivity, partially making up for the declining area under paddy.

The special report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed 0.5 -1.2 degrees Celsius rise in temperature in India by 2020 and a projected temperature of 0.88-3.16o C by 2050. It also projected an increase of 15-40 per cent in rainfall by the end of the 21st century.

The increase in global average temperature and change in rainfall rates has direct or indirect impacts on agriculture. The increase in temperature leads to high evaporation rate, which pushes the need for more water. 

This is a matter of concern; reports show that ground water resource quantity decreased by 42 per cent in Wayanad from 1989 to 2009. Due to its topography, a unique climate is observed that is quite distinct from the climate of the neighbouring regions. This stresses the importance of conducting a study on the impacts of climatic variables on rice production.

The consequences of climate change in rice yield, however, are not similar all across India, according to a research paper titled Climate Change and India’s Future Rice Production: Evidence from 13 Major Rice Growing States of India.

Among the rice-producing regions, southern and eastern regions offer more scope to increase production. Since not all regions in the district have access to or means to benefit from irrigation, water availability is a major concern.

If a similar trend of reduced area of cultivation continues along with economically driven decision to replace traditional varieties with high-yielding varieties, wealth of traditional rice varieties of Wayanad could be severely threatened.

Adequate scientific studies on climatic impacts on rice production in Wayanad should be carried out so that farmers can opt for varieties that easily adapt to the existing climatic conditions.

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