Wheat crisis: High heat in February cause of worry for critical Rabi crop

Temperatures have started increasing even earlier than in 2022; may affect wheat approaching reproductive growth period and lower yield

By Shagun
Published: Tuesday 21 February 2023
A scorching heat wave in March 2022 reduced wheat yield in the north and central Indian states. Photo: iStock

The month of February has been abnormally warm. For agriculture, it is a reminder of last year’s unusual temperatures in March and its impact on the critical Rabi crop — wheat.

Scientists have already started issuing warnings. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research — Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research (ICAR-IIWBR) issued an advisory on February 17, 2023, asking farmers to inspect their crops for yellow rust disease, which is a result of high temperatures.

India Meteorological Department (IMD) late February 20 issued another advisory on the impact of higher day temperatures on wheat and other standing crops in the north Indian states.

Read more: Wheat crisis: All eyes on weather as mercury shoots up in February

On February 21, another IMD press release stated maximum temperatures will likely be above normal by three to five degrees Celsius over northwest, central and west India.

“This higher day temperature might adversely affect wheat approaching the reproductive growth period, which is sensitive to temperature. High temperature during the flowering and maturing period leads to a loss in yield. There could be a similar impact on other standing crops and horticulture,” it said.

In 2022, a scorching heat wave in March reduced wheat yield in the north and central Indian states. The heat was unusually early last time, but it began even earlier this year.

The highest temperature in most wheat-growing states in the week of February 2-8, 2023, especially Madhya Pradesh, was higher than the average temperature of the last seven years, according to a report by the National Crop Forecasting Centre of the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare under the central government.

So what does this mean for the country’s most important Rabi crop, wheat?

The central government is expecting record wheat production in 2022-23. The Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare has claimed wheat production in the current crop season is estimated to be 112 million tonnes — 4.44 million tonnes more than last year.

A record production is essential for boosting the central stockpile and checking inflationary trends in wheat. Last year saw a sharp fall in government wheat stocks due to low production after high temperatures in March shrivelled wheat grains, impacting the crop quantity.

After consecutive record production, India produced 106.84 million tonnes of wheat in the 2021-22 crop season — less than 109.59 million tonnes in 2021. As a result, the government procurement figures fell to a 15-year low, with farmers staying away from government procurement as they were getting high prices in private trade.

So much so that, the government had to revise its wheat allocation for 11 states under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana, replacing wheat with rice.

The Indian government procures food grains for the poor at cheaper costs through the public distribution system (PDS). It also does so to ensure a minimum support price for farmers. Government intervention in the commodity markets controls prices, thus ensuring the country’s food security.

Wheat farmers have been reporting a similar expected yield loss this time.

“It looks like production will be impacted again this time as hotter days have started since early February only. There’s still a month to harvest the crop, but the growth and quality of the crop might be impacted,” said Ajit Pratap, a farmer from Jalaun district in Uttar Pradesh.

Read more: Depleting food grain stock ring alarms: Is India staring at a rice crisis?

The IIWBR advisory suggested that farmers use light irrigation and sprinkle potassium on the wheat plant in case of a sudden spike in temperature. But watering the crops won’t help if the high winds start, as they will be flattened, said Pratap.

The impact of heat is already visible in the white pea and green pea crops that he is currently harvesting. The per hectare yield has reduced from 20 quintals to 15 quintals in white peas and from 24 quintals to 18 quintals in green peas.

Present heat conditions indicate a definite impact on the crop, which will vary depending on the sowing period, said M L Jat, global research programme director, Resilient Farm and Food Systems programme of farming non-profit ICRISAT.

“High temperatures in areas where sugarcane crop was planted first and wheat was sown later (December and early January) will severely impact tillering or growing side shoots. The crop will not get sufficient vegetative nutrition and there will be losses,” Jat said.

Crop sown timely in November will be in the grain development stage in some areas and the ear emergence phase in others.

Learning lessons from last year, early seeding of wheat in October was promoted among farmers to escape the terminal heat in March as grain would have filed by then. However, the high temperatures began even earlier this year, so even early sown crops, which will be in the grain development stage currently, will see a loss in yield.

Jat called the rise in temperatures a “double-trouble” after almost low or no rainfall in December and January, which has already impacted the crop in water-limited geographies.

There was a countrywide rainfall deficit of 14 per cent in December. The dryness continued into January and February 2023, with 27 out of the 36 states and Union Territories receiving ‘deficient’, ‘large deficient’ or ‘no rainfall’ from January 1-February 15, 2023.

The country, as a whole, recorded a rainfall deficit of 30 per cent in this period.

There are concerns regarding the decline of the La Niña conditions by March-April and the development of El Niño conditions later in the year, meaning higher temperatures.

On February 17, the Department of Food and Public Distribution (DFPD) under the Union Ministry Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution decided to reduce the reserve price to check inflationary trends in wheat.

Read more: Wheat Crisis: Centre to procure half of what it procured last year; stops procurement in Punjab

Under the Open Market Sale Scheme, ‘fair and average quality wheat’ is Rs 2,150 per quintal and Rs 2,125 per quintal for wheat ‘under relaxed specifications’.

“Reduction in reserve price will help in reducing the market price of wheat and wheat products for consumers,” it said.

Further, the Food Corporation of India was also releasing 30 lakh metric tonnes of wheat stock from the central pool stock to the market through various routes under the Open Market Sale Scheme (Domestic).

“The recent steps can temporarily ease the prices. The solution lies in a bumper rabi crop, but the high temperatures in February are a cause for worry,” said Arun Kumar, noted economist and Malcolm Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences.

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