Arun Kumar Joshi, managing director, Borlaug Institute of South Asia and the Country Representative of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) has spent about four decades in researching and developing high-yielding and climate-resilient wheat varieties.
With unexpected changes in the global climatic conditions and trade systems, wheat production in India has been gaining considerable international attention. Of late, due to the situation in Ukraine, there has been an increased demand for wheat from India. Professor Joshi talked to The Hindu about the current challenges in the cultivation of wheat in the background of a decrease in production, in the last rabi season.
Excerpts from the interview:
Last year, we faced a decrease in wheat production. What is the feedback you are getting from the fields in this rabi season?
The feedback so far I am getting is that there will be record production of wheat. The reason is that the area of cultivation has increased. According to government estimates, wheat has been sown in more than 34 million hectares so far in this rabi season. There is confidence among farmers that they can take a good harvest and there will be a market available for it. All inputs are available. We also do not see any major insect or other diseases. There is no threat of locusts. Wheat has always been a gamble of temperature. But despite ups and downs, production kept increasing. This year is not an unusual year, rather it is a good year. Monsoon came late in many parts, but there was enough soil moisture. Farmers were able to plant on time. Significant number of farmers in Central India, Northwest India, Eastern sector also are shifting to planting the crop to one week to ten days early, because they assume that terminal heat stress may come early. They are intelligently trying in their capacity to plant early. Seeing that the situation in Ukraine is still continuing, farmers expect that the price will be good. So far, there are no major concerns. The factor of sudden increase in temperature may come later. The government has managed input supply nicely. Irrigation systems have also improved. There will be record production, and India should plan for another export of wheat.
So do you think that by exporting, farmers here will get the benefit of price from international markets?
Price is something that is always attractive to a producer. Last year, the market price of wheat was higher than the Minimum Support Price. This year also, people believe that the market prices will be around MSP. There will be a record of production this time and a lot of procurement. Everything cannot be absorbed in the market. We cannot export wheat from the Karnal Bunt (a fungal disease) infected areas such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. So wheat from Central India is exported and the country should plan for it.
Early summer was a villain last year. How can the farmer be prepared to face such unexpected climate changes?
The earlier you plant, the better you harvest. Farmers should go for mechanisation. If your crop is ready today, arrange all the mechanisation systems in advance, immediately harvest and store. The government is also pushing for mechanisation. The trend is that farmers are now planting early. Our wheat varieties are also heat-tolerant. But if the temperature is 40 degree, wheat will not survive.
Can we expect a repeat of it this time? Last time locusts had also damaged the crops.
So far, the weather has been nice in North India. The most important is night temperature. Nights are cooler than days. Soil health is also important. Humidity was low. No diseases so far. No locusts this year. Last year, we faced the problem of locusts. It is not a local pest. So far the global surveys are not indicating that locusts are coming and they are travelling.
This winter was without much rains. Has this impacted the crops?
Wheat is almost 100% irrigated. The rain-fed wheat is very less. Farmers give restricted irrigation. So if rain comes, it helps. But it should not come when flowering or crop is maturing. A good rain means, we will get two or three million tonnes more. As of now, the indications are that the country will have a record production.
How far has our research gone in finding heat-tolerant wheat varieties?
The early varieties can be understood in two ways. Varieties that mature earlier and those that can be planted earlier. Heat tolerance can be genetic and escapist. New varieties that can be planted in the third week of October, have been developed. They are juvenile heat tolerant. The Indian Council of Agriculture Research-CIMMYT collaboration is breeding all types of heat tolerant varieties—terminal, juvenile and any time. But wheat is naturally a winter crop. So it is very challenging. But the results are encouraging.