Climate change and food security

Since climate-related crop failure has activated a shift in cropping system, developing adaptation and mitigation strategies is very important.

Updated - June 23, 2022 06:46 pm IST

Published - June 23, 2022 05:14 pm IST

Cardamom harvest in Idukki. Cardamom crop is hit by a change in weather patterns, adding to the agrarian distress in the State.

Cardamom harvest in Idukki. Cardamom crop is hit by a change in weather patterns, adding to the agrarian distress in the State.

At the outset, Cheriyan's two-acre cardamom farm is a thriving green landscape under the cerulean sky. But on closer inspection, you will see the wilted shoots and damaged pods -- byproducts of an erratic weather.

The Malayalam month of Edavam has come to an end without any steady downpour, the dry spell stretching all through the third week of June except for some mild, dwindling drizzles. Plants miss that rich monsoon hue and farmers in Idukki, a district that recorded a large rain deficit of 69% during the June 1-22 period, are bracing for a possible crop failure.

"It's for the first time we are experiencing a nearly dry monsoon while the temperature keeps rising. A delayed or failed monsoon will affect the capsule formation and the yield will dip," says the 67-year-old from Kumily.


Cardamom is one among the many thermosensitive crops hit by rising mercury levels, change in weather patterns and extreme climatic conditions, adding to the agrarian distress in the State. Farmers complain that the inconsistent rain pattern is causing crop loss and delayed flowering, while the aberrancy in temperature and humidity is triggering pest attacks. The fall in yield has hit their livelihood and at present many of them are staring at an uncertain future.

"The majority of residents in our village are dependent on the single crop of cardamom and it's practically impossible for us to switch. I have been cultivating cardamom for the last 22 years and the changing climate is posing a serious threat to us. We have been farmers for generations and at present we are in the middle of a major crisis," adds Mr. Cheriyan, as his cousin Shaji agrees.

"There has been a steady rise in average daytime temperature. We used to grow orange in the past, but we had to quit after the spike in temperature started impacting the fruition of orange groves. The high-range climate is no more the same and the cardamom farmers are having a hard time," points out Mr. Shaji.

According to Suresh Kumar, a farmer from Kattappana, it all started with the floods of 2018 when incessant rain caused widespread crop damage. "After the first floods, the proportion of rain has never been the same and our harvest cycle also changed. During the month of June we add manure to expedite the germination of charams (panicles) and if there is no rain, the growth will slow down. Though the plants currently look healthy due to the pre-monsoon rain, the yield will be very poor," he says.

He adds that while 250 kg of dried cardamom is the average yield you usually get from one acre, now it has come down to 160-170 kg. Though there has been a considerable dip in yield from individual holdings, the overall production of the spice has increased due to area extension during the last five years.

"In 2017-18 there was a sharp rise in demand and the prices crossed Rs4,000 per kilogram. With the prices going through the roof, many farmers stopped cultivating other crops and planted cardamom expecting bumper returns. As production and supply increased, prices came down to Rs680, which hardly covers the production cost. While huge estates that cultivate a range of crops and generate huge volumes of cardamom are not much affected, small-scale farmers are struggling," he adds.

Pest and pesticide use

Pointing to the deformed pods fallen from the plant, Baby says pest attacks have become more frequent with the change in climate. "We are unable to control these pests with very high resistance and as they easily adapt to changes. We are forced to spray pesticides to salvage what is left of our crop," adds the farmer from Udumbanchola. He confirms that they make regular trips to pesticide dealers to buy what is called 'vesham' (poison) in local parlance.

"It may be highly toxic and we have no idea if it's legal or whether the ratio is correct. We also fear that they might ruin the soil in the long run, but we don't have any other options since we hardly get any support from authorities. We lack any other means to cope," he adds.

While climate change is a factor impacting the crop, this indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides can give rise to a spate of adverse consequence, says Muthusami Murugan, Professor and head of the Cardamom Research Station at Pampadumpara, Idukki. "Climate change has brought a lot of variations in rainfall behaviour including intensity and rainy days on annual and seasonal scale. This has had a positive effect on pest pressure and affected the cardamom yield. But high-intensity chemical use will affect the growth, development, flowering and capsule setting of cardamom under the changing climatic conditions in the Indian cardamom hills," he says.

Cashew nut

The Aralam Farming Corporation Kerala Limited in Kannur, which produces around 90% of the raw cashew nut in Kerala, saw a record fall in yield this season. Spread across 350 hectares, Aralam orchards produce high-quality nut that enjoys a huge demand in the internal market. "Our total yield during the last season was 184 tonnes and this time it came down to 90, which means there was more than 50% dip in production," says S.Bimalghosh, managing director of the farm.

While excess rainfall during the flowering season affected the fruit setting process, the wayward weather also messed up the quality of the produce. "Due to the continuous rain the nuts started sprouting on the tree and even the fallen ones began to germinate within a couple of days. We lost around 1500 kg of nut due to sprouting induced by unseasonal rain," he adds.

In a bid to save the sinking cashew sector, the State government had launched an intensive plantation drive distributing around 25 lakh high-yielding grafts over the last five years. At present the cultivation is spread over one lakh hectares of land and a surge in annual nut production was also reported during the last season.

"But the picture has changed this time and the farmers have reported an unprecedented dip in production. The rain that continued till November caused the flowers to fall and the rise in temperature during December-January was also not favourable for the crop. There was a consistent increase in production till 2018, but we are seeing variations during the last couple of years," says Shirish Kesavan, special officer (cashew) and chairman, Kerala State Agency for the expansion of Cashew Cultivation (KSACC).

Spike in pest population

Variations in temperature and relative humidity often facilitate the emergence of new pests and diseases, leaving many crops susceptible to attacks and outbreaks. "While these changes will accelerate fungal infection in some crops, you will see minor pests turning into major pests for some. With the rise in temperature, the number of lifecycles will increase and there will be a spike in pest population. In the future, controlling these pests and diseases will be a key concern," says P. Shajeesh Jan, Department of Agricultural Meteorology, Regional Agricultural Research Station (RARS), Wayanad.

While natural enemies are multiplying in the warm weather conditions, extreme rainfall events have been wiping out soil nutrient reserves, generating a negative impact on the crops. "Excessive rainfall will lower soil fertility and turn it acidic. With the top soil washed away there will be a depletion in organic matter," he adds.

Incessant summer showers wreaked havoc in Kuttanad’s paddy fields in Aprill and May.

Incessant summer showers wreaked havoc in Kuttanad’s paddy fields in Aprill and May. | Photo Credit: SURESH ALLEPPEY

According to a study conducted by the Indian Cardamom Research Institute under the Spices Board and College of Climate Change and Environmental Science under Kerala Agricultural University, thermosensitive crops like cocoa, black pepper, cardamom, coffee and tea may be under threat as the temperature range across the Cardamom Hill Reserve (CHR) of Idukki district is increasing. It also finds an increase in the surface air temperature across the State and calls for proactive measures to alleviate risks related to the quality and quantity of the crops. While poor rain affects pepper pollination, leading to a dip in production, change in humidity levels will influence the size and quality of coffee bean.

A worrying shrinkage in paddy farming area is one of the major finds in the study on 'Climate change and cropping pattern of plantation crops and spices in Kerala'. "The increase in area under banana, areca nut and rubber is mostly at the expense of paddy fields. Rubber has encroached on more and more areas of the State. The paddy cultivating areas of the high ranges have either paved the way for rubber cultivation or to pineapple, areca nut, banana and other seasonal crops," it says.

Since the onset, distribution and behaviour of the monsoon have changed over the years, virippu (rainy season) paddy, which is heavily dependent on monsoon, is under severe threat in many parts. "Since virippu paddy is mainly a rainfed crop, farmers will not have resources for supplemental irrigation. This year water was released from the Malampuzha dam to save the crop in Palakkad which has the largest acreage of paddy farms. Since the first crop is always rainfed, we irrigate the farms only during the mundakan season (second crop) from October to December. Water deficit is a major challenge for paddy and this change in pattern has altered our traditional crop calendar," says climatologist Gopakumar Cholayil.


Paddy farmers are a worried lot since incessant summer showers had wreaked havoc in Kuttanad, destroying the harvest-ready puncha crop in April 2022. "Heavy downpours started in the beginning of the harvest season and within no time the paddy polders were inundated. It was practically impossible to drain the water and the crop started rotting in front of our eyes. Continuing crop failure and mounting debts are making our life miserable," says Purushan, a farmer from Alappuzha.

While many farmers could not reap the harvest, those who managed were unable to transport it and the quality of the produce was very mediocre at many polders. "Moreover, heavy summer rainfall aggravated bacterial leaf blight disease in paddy and this year a lot of farmers had to suffer yield losses due to that," adds Mr.Cholayil.

Prolonged dry spells, delayed monsoons, intensity shifts and cloudbursts - they all point to the fact that the rainfall scenario in the State has changed. In January 2021 Munnar recorded sub-zero temperature and the cold wave had a devastating impact on the vegetable tracts in Vattavada.

"In Marayur, sugarcane farmers lost an entire season and it's a clear-cut example of the climate change," he observes. During the time Kerala witnessed an exceptionally high rainfall of 105.5 mm against the normal of 11.0 mm. "In Idukki daytime temperature is rising while night temperature is falling. In the long run, this widening gap in temperature range will adversely affect the high-range crops growing in forest-agro ecosystems," he says. As the shift in rainfall and temperature trends are becoming more pronounced, farmers are forced to opt for crops that have comparatively higher resilience.

Since climate-related crop failure has activated a shift in cropping system where non-foodgrain crops are steadily replacing foodgrain crops, developing adaptation and mitigation strategies is very important. "We cannot formulate the strategy without consistent studies. Our research should focus more on spell analysis instead of monthly or yearly statistics. Heavy rain within a short span of time, variations in high-range temperature, extreme weather events -- all these indicate that the climate is changing and it can have a serious impact on the food security of the State. We need short-term and long-term programmes instead of looking for quick-fixes during climate-related contingencies. A joint effort of experts from various streams is crucial for developing the strategy," says Mr. Cholayil.

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