Why Being a Farmer in India is only Getting Harder — The Curious Case of Potatoes

Globally, the annual volatility of crop yields as well as crop quality and safety (contamination, pathogen, etc.) depend on the annual variability of climate, even more so in India where only 12% of the arable land is under irrigation, leaving the remaining 88% at the whim of mother nature. Rice and wheat have historically dominated agriculture in India, where more than 80% of the acreage under production consists primarily of these two grain crops, a necessary strategy for meeting national objectives of food security. However, potatoes — despite being grown in approximately one percent of the acreage under crop production — are considered a dominant cash crop for the farmers in India as it brings significant income to rural areas.

A major climate event captured the media’s attention — heavy rains in Karantaka (1300 hectares) destroyed the regions potato production after two successive years of extreme drought. Even with these back to back events, the average potato production in 2018–19 is expected to be 2.5% higher than the last year and almost 13% higher than the last five years as per the reports from government of India.

source: World Potato Atlas

This is largely because cumulative Potato acreage is increasing annually, offsetting and masking the variation in regional production driven by the regional and temporal variability of seasonal weather in India. This drives extreme financial hardship for the unlucky growers who just so happened to receive the bad end of the regional monsoons that year. To put it another way, the market price for potatoes doesn’t react to downturns in regional production from drought or heavy rains because on aggregate there is an oversupply of potato acreage across the different farming regions in India.

This variability has already manifested in consequences for yields, water resource infrastructure, and logistics of food supply within India and the problem is only getting worse. Research by Deepti et.al suggests that both the spatial and temporal variability of rainfall is increasing (Fig.2) meaning more fluctuations between periods of low rainfall and intense rainfall rather than the steady rainfall the region was historically accustomed to.

The progress report of Monsoons in the summer of 2019 highlights the same pattern of variability in India but more so in Northern and Southern Karnataka. The underlying data is released by Indian Meteorological Department,

The table above shows that in North Karnataka, only 5 weeks in the middle of the season received normal rainfall consistent with the 30-year average, the heuristic farmers have adapted to using. However, the 6 weeks before September 30th they received intense rainfall leading to waterlogged fields during the time of harvest. The consequence will be a near complete loss of crop in the region and concerns around quality and safety of the potato production from those areas as many pathogens and contaminants are more likely to affect the final product.

And yet despite this turbulence, potato prices have remained normal because the production from other areas such as Eastern U.P, Bihar have received normal rainfall for a full 12 weeks in the season leading to above average production. The potato market in India has a perpetual oversupply of farming acreage with some alternating portion of the country’s farms getting absolutely decimated every year. This pattern points to a broader problem of long-tern sustainability of farming as an income source for farmers not just in potatoes but the broader Indian agriculture market as monsoon variability continues to increase with climate change.

Instruments such as contract farming, better seeds, and more climate smart agriculture could help mitigate these effects and increase their income levels in the long run. We will dive deeper into this topic in a later post.

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