Farmers see yields dropping by 70%, damaging livelihoods and pushing up prices
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL // JUNE 18, 2022
A mango orchard nestled in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has passed through three generations of Deepak Kumar’s family. His grandfather planted the saplings 35 years ago and by June, the trees are usually heavy with fruit.
This season’s record-breaking high temperatures, which began in March, have devastated the orchard. Mr. Kumar estimates that his mango harvest will plunge by at least 70%.
“We are helpless. We have massive losses,” the 33-year-old said. “This extreme hot weather has come for the first time.”
A scorching heat wave in India has wreaked havoc on crops including mangoes and wheat, threatening the livelihoods of farmers and elevating food prices for the country’s nearly 1.4 billion people. India suffered the hottest March since record-keeping began 122 years ago, with average temperatures close to 92 degrees but sometimes reaching 104 degrees. The intense heat rolled into April, which was the warmest in 50 years. And parts of the country experienced record-high temperatures in May as well, with one neighborhood in New Delhi soaring to nearly 121 degrees.
The India government last month slashed its forecast for countrywide wheat production this year by nearly 6%, blaming an early onset of summer. Some agriculture experts believe the losses will be close to 10% to 15% when compared with last year. Yields for other crops such as mustard seed have also been affected.
In India, where about 40% of the working population still relies directly on the agricultural sector for employment, a poor harvest deals a heavy blow to the economy—and increases grocery costs for city dwellers, who rely on domestically produced food for much of their diet.
“The agriculture sector is not an isolated sector,” said Himanshu, an associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “Agriculture is still a key lever, an important driver of what happens to the economy.”
Mr. Himanshu, who goes by one name, said under normal circumstances India could withstand one year of bad crops by tapping into its wheat reserves. But the heat-reduced harvest coincides with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted the global food chain. That prompted the Indian government to ban all exports of wheat due to fears that more of the grain would be exported to take advantage of higher prices.
Among the crops affected this year, perhaps no other food is as integral to the Indian identity as the mango. India produces nearly half of the world’s supply, although it ranks eighth on the list of top exporters behind countries including Thailand and Mexico, according to food-data firm Tridge.
In India, the mango is known as the king of fruits. Over the centuries, it has taken starring roles in literature, poetry and religious rituals. The country eagerly awaits the arrival of mango season, which lasts from May to July. People passionately debate which among the hundreds of varieties is the best.
Mango trees can take years to bear fruit and many farmers in India work in orchards planted by their fathers and grandfathers. That legacy, they said, is now threatened by what they fear may be a new pattern of intense and early heat waves. Climate scientists concluded that extreme heat waves like the one suffered in India and Pakistan this year are 30 times more likely now than during the preindustrial era, according to a report released last month by the World Weather Attribution initiative, a group of researchers who study the connection between climate change and extreme weather events.
In Uttar Pradesh, which is part of the northern mango belt, the harvest will be down 70% from a year earlier, according to the All India Mango Growers Association.
Mr. Kumar, who tends to an orchard in the village of Akbarpur in the western part of the state, said his trees flowered a little later this year—in March instead of February—after unusually heavy winter rains. But the blooms were plentiful, so he still hoped for a good harvest. Within weeks, however, he started noticing something was off: Bees, which normally come buzzing en masse to feast and pollinate the flowers, were noticeably absent.
“We realized it will not just be a poor harvest,” he said. “We might have a no-harvest season.”
The misfortunes piled up. In April, young fruits began dropping prematurely. Insects known as thrips, normally controllable with pesticides, flourished in the high temperatures and killed more of the growing fruits.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Kumar pointed to the effect that months of unrelenting heat has had on his orchard. The outside of many trees that were exposed to direct sunlight had virtually no mangoes, although fruit still grew in the shaded parts of the same trees.
During a normal season, the 300 or so trees, spread across nearly 10 acres, can produce up to 100,000 pounds of fruit, Mr. Kumar said. He usually makes a profit of about $9,000—money that his entire family relies on for the rest of the year.
Mr. Kumar said he would count this year as a success if he doesn’t lose money from investments in labor, fertilizer and pesticides. His family, which includes sons ages 2 and 9 years old, will have to make do without buying new clothes or eating out.
Many orchard owners in western Uttar Pradesh rent the land to contractors who pay a flat fee for the right to tend, harvest and sell the mangoes.
Kanhaiya Lal, who rents 40 acres of orchard, said many contractors have walked away from their investments after seeing the meager harvest. They are in a precarious position, he said, of trying to recoup both the cost of tending the orchards and the fee paid to the orchard owners. Mr. Lal said he is determined to see the season through and salvage what he can.
The yield is down 70% from a normal year, he said. The fruits that are growing are smaller than normal and dropping too early. His only hope is that the higher prices for mangoes this season will make up for the small harvest.
“It will be neck-and-neck whether we can cover our investment,” he said. “Only God can decide that.”
Many Indians say they are drastically cutting down on mango consumption this year as prices of their favorite varieties have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled. But they say they are willing to scrimp in other areas for a taste of the fruit that is synonymous with summer in their minds.
Kshitij Choudhary, a college student in the city of Daurala in Uttar Pradesh, said he had eaten only bananas in the past few months because of the high cost of mangoes. On a recent weekday, he decided to splurge to celebrate the end of the school term, paying 100 rupees, which is equivalent to $1.28, for four mangoes, about twice the normal cost.
“It’s very difficult to purchase for the common man,” he said. “But I had to eat mangoes at least once.”
Mango farmers said India may start losing its cultural ties to the mango if heat waves continue in the future. Some are already talking about quitting their orchards and turning to other crops.
Mr. Kumar said his orchard symbolizes both a livelihood and his family’s legacy. A bumper crop gives him an emotional high akin to scoring big in gambling, lending him fuel for future years, he said. But he may be forced to cut down his trees and switch to sugar cane or wheat if there are a few more years of bad harvests.
“We have been seeing the change in climate, but there’s hardly anything we can do,” he said. “If there’s no money in the business, how long will a mango farmer continue to suffer losses?”