A worker loads a sack of wheat product onto a truck in a mill at Khanna, in India’s Punjab state, on May 18. Photo: AFP
Mark Smith
Mark Smith

As heatwave in India, Pakistan exacerbates global food crisis, countries must hasten move to climate-smart agriculture

  • The effects of the war in Ukraine on global food supplies have been compounded by crop losses in India and Pakistan
  • Countries must help farmers adapt to climate change with, for example, drought monitoring systems and climate-smart staple crops, while also adopting low-emissions agricultural technology
Just as global markets were looking to India and Pakistan to help fill the wheat deficit caused by the war in Ukraine, a deadly heatwave has compounded the global food crisis, causing crop losses of up to 35 per cent and leading to a ban on wheat exports.

Prolonged spells of record-breaking temperatures close to 50 degrees Celsius, which have been linked to 90 deaths, have also brought moisture stress during the wheat harvest and ahead of the next planting season.

While these extreme temperatures may be concentrated in India and Pakistan, countries around the world are also feeling the heat in the form of growing food insecurity.

In response, the affected countries must manage the impacts of climate change as far as possible, but it is down to the rest of the world – especially the Global North – to reduce emissions and minimise the extreme conditions to which we must all adapt or face the consequences.

To protect global food systems for future generations, countries must support producers to adapt to what is already inevitable – higher temperatures, water stress and unpredictable seasons – and prevent the impact from becoming even worse.

For India and Pakistan, this means developing and adopting robust agricultural mechanisms for coping with climate hazards, from heatwaves to flooding and landslides, including systems to better anticipate extreme conditions.

For example, the South Asia Drought Monitoring System provides an early warning of signs of drought; with at least 10 days’ notice, it may be possible to plant contingency crops to tide over farmers and their communities.

Breeding, refining and improving climate-smart staple crops, such as the drought-, flood- and salt-tolerant rice varieties developed by scientists, can also help farmers to continue earning a living in unpredictable and less favourable conditions.

And techniques to replenish water resources, such as managed aquifer recharge and services such as climate-indexed insurance, can reduce the impact of water stress, high temperatures and droughts, allowing farmers to continue producing food.


India’s mango industry faces most devastating crop loss in 50 years because of extreme weather

India’s mango industry faces most devastating crop loss in 50 years because of extreme weather
But adaptation and resilience have their limits, particularly if global emissions are not reduced sufficiently to avoid the worst-case climate scenarios. All countries, therefore, also have a responsibility to renew efforts on low-emissions development pathways to avoid exacerbating the climate crisis and maximising the window for adaptation.

Within agriculture, pumping groundwater for irrigation accounts for up to 20 per cent of carbon emissions, and South Asia is the world’s largest user of groundwater for farming.

Replacing diesel or electric pumps with solar irrigation pumps – as Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan have begun to do – would be a win-win for both mitigation and adaptation across the region.

Heatwave, coal crisis should speed up India’s renewable energy push

Together with the widespread adoption of other low-cost technologies, and the diversification of food systems beyond rice, transforming agrifood systems in South Asia could help prevent 111.61 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.

More broadly, as a significant contributor to greenhouse gases, the agriculture sector around the world must also reduce emissions to be able to continue providing food and livelihoods to billions, and to prevent climate extremes from becoming more common.


Pakistani city on ‘front line of climate change’ sees record temperatures

Pakistani city on ‘front line of climate change’ sees record temperatures
For many countries in the Global South, this often requires better access to innovations that enable smallholders to become more efficient, reducing the emissions associated with produce lost to pests and diseases, and increasing the precision with which resources are used.

Initiatives like MITIGATE+ will, for instance, develop at least five innovations to reduce agricultural emissions in Bangladesh, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Peru and Vietnam.

Human activity is driving the crises, from climate change to conflict, that are putting exponential pressure on the very systems that support life on Earth.

Before we reach the limits with which we can realistically cope, the global community must prioritise the actions that will slow the rise in extreme climate events and reduce their impact when they occur: reducing carbon emissions now, increasing strategic food reserves, enhancing the free flow of global trade, and investing in agricultural research to develop seeds and systems more resilient to such shocks.

The connections between emergencies in one region and food security elsewhere have never been clearer, making the case for agricultural research and innovation non-negotiable.

Dr Mark Smith is senior director of water systems at CGIAR, the world’s largest publicly funded agricultural research network, and director general of the International Water Management Institute