September 25, 2023

El Nino threatens rice crops while grain stocks are already under pressure from the war in Ukraine

NEW DELHI (AP) — Warmer, drier weather due to an earlier-than-normal El Nino is expected to hamper rice production across Asia, threatening global food security in a world still reeling from the impacts of the war in Ukraine.

An El Nino is a natural, temporary and incidental warming of part of the Pacific Ocean that shifts global weather patterns, and climate change is making them stronger. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it in June, a month or two earlier than usual. This gives it time to grow. Scientists say there’s a one in four chance it will expand to super-sized levels.

That’s bad news for rice farmers, especially in Asia, where 90% of the world’s rice is grown and eaten, as a strong El Nino typically means less rainfall for the thirsty harvest.

Past El Ninos have resulted in extreme weather ranging from drought to flooding.

There are already “alarm bells,” said Abdullah Mamun, a research analyst at the International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI, pointing to rising rice prices due to production shortfalls. The average price of 5% broken white rice in June in Thailand was about 16% higher than last year’s average.

Global stocks have been low since last year, in part due to devastating floods in Pakistan, a major rice exporter. This year’s El Nino could exacerbate other woes for rice-producing countries, such as reduced fertilizer availability due to the war and some countries’ export restrictions on rice. Myanmar, Cambodia and Nepal are particularly vulnerable, warned a recent report by research firm BMI.

“There is uncertainty about the horizon,” Mamun said.

Recently, global average temperatures have reached record highs. Monsoon rains over India were lighter than usual at the end of June. Indonesian President Joko Widodo asked his ministers on Monday to anticipate a long dry season. And in the Philippines, authorities carefully manage water to protect vulnerable areas.

Some countries are preparing for food shortages. Indonesia was one of the countries hardest hit by India’s decision to restrict rice exports last year after less rain than expected and a historic heat wave scorched wheat, sparking fears that domestic food prices could rise.

Last month, India said it would send more than 1 million tons (1.1 million US tons) to Indonesia, Senegal and The Gambia to help them meet “their food security needs.”

Fertilizer is another crucial variable. Last year, China, a major producer, restricted exports to keep domestic prices in check after fertilizer was among the exports hit by sanctions against Russia’s ally Belarus for human rights violations. Sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine do not specifically target fertilizers, but the war has disrupted the shipment of the three main chemical fertilizers: potash, phosphorus and nitrogen.

Bangladesh found suppliers in Canada to make up for lost potash shipments from Belarus, but many countries are still struggling to find new sources.

Farmers like Abu Bakar Siddique, who farms 1.2 hectares in northern Bangladesh, had enough fertilizer last year to keep his yields stable. But less rain meant he had to rely more on electric pumps for his winter harvest at a time of power shortages due to war-related shortages of diesel and coal.

“This increased my costs,” he said.

Every El Nino is different, but historical trends suggest that the scant rainfall in South and Southeast Asia will dry out soils and cause cascading effects in years to come, said Beau Damen, a natural resources officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization in Bangkok. , Thailand. Some countries, such as Indonesia, may be more vulnerable in the early stages of the phenomenon, he said.

Kusnan, a farmer in Indonesia’s East Java, said rice farmers there have been trying to anticipate this by planting earlier so that when El Nino hits, the rice is ready to harvest and doesn’t need as much water. Kusnan, who like many Indonesians only goes by one name, said he hoped last year’s high yields would help offset any losses this year.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has stressed the need to properly manage water in the coming weeks, warning that several factors, including export restrictions and fertilizer shortages, could combine with El Nino to “make this a particularly damaging event.”

Baldev Singh, a 52-year-old farmer in the northern Indian state of Punjab, is already concerned. He usually sows rice from late June to mid-July, but then needs the monsoon rains to flood the rice fields. At the beginning of this month, less than a tenth of the usual rainfall had fallen, when northern India was hit by floods, damaging young crops that had just been planted.

The government has since the 1960s encouraged farmers in Punjab to grow rice alongside their traditional wheat crops to improve India’s food security, even though farmers like Singh do not normally eat rice and irrigation of paddy fields has drained the area’s aquifers . But he continues to grow it, counting on the security of government purchases at fixed prices.

With little rain falling, Singh may have to dig wells. Last year he dug down 60 meters to find water.

“Rice has been our downfall…I don’t know what will happen in the future,” he said.


Associated Press journalists Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed.


The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. Read more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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