Attaining food security for India continues to remain a daunting task. Since the Green revolution of the 1960s, the country’s agricultural policies have led to an increase in agricultural productivity and overall food-production. However, with a rapidly increasing population, the demand for food grains is projected to be even higher in the future. Mittal (2008) has made projections of India’s food demand and supply up to 2026, using 1999-2000 as the base year and GDP growth of 8% and 9%. The rise in demand of commodities such as wheat and rice is shown to be about 55%, while that in respect of cereals is 104%.With current production trends, meeting India’s future demand for food grains through domestic production alone will be difficult.
On a global scale, world leaders at the 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development reaffirmed the fundamental right of every individual to be free from hunger. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an important progression from the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were a set of 17 global goals, also aims to improve the lives of all people around the world by 2030. Amongst these, SDG 2 seeks to ‘End hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’. Food security could, of course, be achieved through food self-sufficiency, but the latter is not a necessary precondition for the former. As Jay Maniyar of the NMF has pointed out in his opening article on Japan’s Food Security (NMF Website, 09 December 2019), “Food-security might well be achieved by the country concerned simply importing the balance of food that is short. If such import-sources are entirely reliable and the transportation of the food from its source to its destination is assured — that is, financially and physically secure — the country may end up having an acceptable degree of food-security even while remaining deficient in terms of food self-sufficiency. This is especially true in ‘caloric terms’, wherein a self-sufficient country produces as much or more ‘caloric-value’ of food than it consumes, even if some of the actual food items consumed by its population are different from those that it produces domestically. Thus, even countries that are ‘self-sufficient’ may specialise their food-production to some extent and import as well as export food”.It is also possible for a country to obtain self-sufficiency in food grains and yet not achieve food security for its people. India itself is a quintessential example of this — the country’s ‘Green Revolution’ of the mid-1960s notwithstanding. Writing in Business Line (04 June, 2019), Marshall M Bouton, the highly-respected Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), stated that “The main goal [of the Green Revolution]was to ensure India’s national food security, more precisely its self-reliance in food grain production…. Today, India has achieved self-reliance in food grain production. It has become the world’s second largest producer of both wheat and rice and the largest exporter of rice.”And yet he added, “India’s increases in total food production have, unfortunately, not translated into proportionate decreases in malnutrition.”As a result, on the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) 2018 Global Hunger Index (GHI), India ranks a dismal 103rdout of 119 countries, and is home to the largest number of malnourished people in the world, about one quarter of the global total.
Studies and research on agrarian distress show that a combination of policy-induced, technological and ecological factors is responsible for India’s agrarian crisis.Although, India has slowly but steadily embraced technological advancements and has undertaken many reforms and schemes such as the National Food Security Act (NFSA), it is the ecological factors that now need comprehensive and urgent attention.
Looking ahead, poverty and malnutrition in rural India will be exacerbated by increasingly frequent droughts, cyclones, and other weather extremes, as also the long-term impacts of climate change. For instance, most of the country experienced successive droughts in 2014-15 and 2015-16.The IFPRI’s 2019 Global Food Policy Report projects that 93 million Indians will be at risk of hunger by 2030 and 45 million by 2050, if the expected effects of climate change are considered.
It is a well-established fact that agricultural productivity in India is heavily dependent on rainfall — particularly the South West (SW)Monsoon. It is, therefore, only natural that any impact of climate-change on the inter-annual and inter-seasonal variability of monsoon rainfall will affect India’s food production and hence its food security. The consequences of climate change in this context are already quite evident and the SW monsoon is frequently observed to be out of its normal rhythm, both in terms of duration and spatial parameters.
Sadly, many Indian climate-change scholars, while quite rightly expressing great concern over the recent Australian bush fires.(As of 15 February, 2020, more than 46 million acres [72,000 square miles] of land had been burnt in thousands of fires since June 2019),are largely unaware of how maritime aspects of climate-change have been causing havoc amongst Indian farmers in India’s hinterland, significantly and adversely impacting crops that are required to provide for India’s food-security. Surprisingly this link between maritime facets of climate-change and hinterland agriculture is provided by a most unlikely, yet very significant, actor — the desert locust. This story is becoming, in the famous words of the celebrated author, Lewis Carrol, “curiouser and curiouser”.
Locusts belong to the grasshopper family. The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), which is found in more than 65 of the world’s poorest countries, normally lives a solitary lifestyle in the deserts between West Africa and India. It breeds after periods of rainfall, because it needs moist soil to lay its eggs. But when rains are especially heavy, the population can build up rapidly, resulting in vast swarms.An adult desert locust consumes roughly its own weight in fresh food, i.e., about two grams, per day. A very small part of an average swarm (or about one tonne of locusts) eats the same amount of food in one day as about 10 elephants or 25 camels or 2,500 people!
In February of 2020, swarms of desert locust, thick enough to blot out the sun, flew in from the West Asian deserts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, and swamped farmlands in Rajasthan and Gujarat, destroying crops over nearly 1.7 lakh hectaresand causing a severe crop loss of more than 33 per cent.Other swarms, also as also originating in the same areas made their way to Africa, triggering fears of a severe food crisis in that continent.
As already stated, these swarms of desert locusts are the link between hinterland agriculture and a significant maritime impact of climate-change, viz., the increased frequency and intensity of Tropical Revolving Storms (TRS) or ‘cyclones’ as they are commonly known in South Asia. The earlier ‘normal’ was that even in the two peaks of the ‘cyclone season’ (April to June and September to December) in the Arabian Sea, only one cyclone formed per year. However, the impact of climate change is altering this ‘normal’ very significantly and rapidly. In the year 2018, for instance, as many as three unusually strong cyclones emerged in the Arabian Sea. These were: Cyclone Sagar (which made landfall in north-west Somaliland and Djibouti on 19 May 2018 and is only the second tropical cyclone to have penetrated the western Gulf of Aden), Cyclone Mekunu( which made landfall in South West Oman on 25 May 2018), and Cyclone Luban (which struck the eastern portion of Yemen on 14 Oct 2018).An analysis of the impact of climate change upon weather patterns shows that the last two years have been punishing, with a sharp increase in the frequency and intensity of cyclones at sea. The sea surface temperature in 2019 was between 27° and 29° Celsius — a recipe for cyclone-formation. The years 2018 and 2019 also witnessed strong Positive Indian Ocean Dipole (pIOD) phenomena.In 2019, the number of cyclones that formed in the Arabian Sea increased to five,and although storm surges were experienced in Oman in one case (Cyclone Hikka) none of them penetrated the desert areas as deeply as the 2018 ones did. Those three 2018 cyclones (Sagar, Mekunu, and Luban) influenced the unpopulated desert of the southern Arabian Peninsula, also known as the Empty Quarter, as also eastern Africa. The heavy rainfall associated with these three cyclones and the prolonged bout of wet weather from May to October 2018, resulted in rainwater filling-up the troughs between the desert sand dunes, and converting them into ephemeral lakes.
This created favourable breeding conditions for desert locusts. Each desert locust lays about 150 eggs and the population rises exponentially over successive generations. The locusts have a life span of about three months. Hence, the three cyclones in 2018 enabled three generations of locust breeding, thereby increasing their population to a dangerous level that was incapable of being sustained by the sparse availability of food in the ‘Empty Quarter’. The inherently migratory nature of these locust swarms and their ability to cover extremely large distances each day led to locust migration over the Red sea and the Gulf of Aden. The swarms reached Ethiopia and Somalia by the summer of 2019. Cyclone Pawan, which struck Somalia early in December of 2019, once again provided favourable breeding conditions and the locust swarm multiplied several-fold.
These swarms then flew eastward, in search of food, towards Pakistan and India. The lack of timely and proper control measures in Pakistan, coupled with the longer duration of the monsoon in 2019 in India due to its delayed withdrawal — once again a result of climate-change — led to a further cycle of breeding of these desert locusts and their movement to India. Although locust swarms normally retreat from India by November, the delayed retreat of the monsoon created additional favourable breeding conditions for locusts in the India’s Thar desert, too. There are also probable linkages between the movement into India of these locust swarms with western disturbances which are phenomenon forming over Mediterranean Sea from November onwards and moving from west to east towards areas of Pakistan and subsequently to India.
Unfortunately, news about these occurrences of locust-attacks and the enormous economic damage they caused has been swamped by the media-frenzy attending the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease. Nevertheless, the locust-attacks significantly lowers the food security of India, Pakistan and several countries of Africa. Pakistan declared an agricultural emergency and its desperate search for amelioration even forced their agriculture officials to engage with domain experts from India.The prevailing situation, wherein Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’, China, is considering sending Pakistan around a hundred-thousand (one lakh) ducks to help fight the locusts,would have been ludicrous were the situation not quite as serious as it is!
Interestingly, the last occasion on which desert locusts wreaked such major havoc was in 2007, a year that saw super cyclone Gonu— the most powerful Arabian Sea cyclone on record — strike Oman in June of that year,followed by heavy rainfall brought about by a dissipating depression in November 2007.
The cyclonic disturbances of 2007 and 2018 strongly indicate that the heavy rainfall that these cyclones bring in their wake, does not merely trigger the rapid growth vegetation in these normally arid segments of Africa and Arabia, but also creates fertile grounds for the rapid growth in population of desert locusts. Given this correlation the immediate future is hardly a rosy one. As we advance through April of 2020, the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ)is forming close to equator and will move northward thereafter. This is likely to result in increased rainfall over north-eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. With the Indian summer monsoon to follow in June 2020, the desert-locust menace may well once again spiral out of control.
Climate-change research indicates that the enhanced number of super cyclones, the unusual paths they now follow, and, erratic monsoon rainfall, are all becoming commonplace in a world that is getting steadily warmer. Climate-studies also suggest that if the planet becomes warmer by 1.5 degrees, which is a distinct possibility, the probability of the occurrence of extremely positive Indian Ocean Dipole phenomena would double.Given its tropical location and the fact that it is quite so dependent for its agricultural wellbeing upon the SW monsoon, India is certainly going to be amongst one of the most adversely affected nations. With 2020, likely to usher in yet another high-intensity cyclonic season, India not only needs to undertake more aggressive control measures in bordering areas along Pakistan but also to conduct significant proto-testing of its preparedness to handle locust attacks. Indeed, the enlisting of duck-support might not be so outlandish an idea after all!
*Commandant Manoranjan Srivastava is a Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation and the views expressed are his own and do not reflect the position or policies of the Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard or the Government of India. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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