Rice Crops Under Threat from El Nino as Grain Supplies Tighten Amid Ukraine Conflict

The consequences of an earlier than usual El Nino are predicted to have a detrimental impact on rice production across Asia, leading to concerns regarding global food security in a world already grappling with the aftermath of the war in Ukraine.

El Nino, a natural and temporary warming of a portion of the Pacific, is known to alter global weather patterns, and its intensity is being exacerbated by climate change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an announcement in June, which is significantly earlier than its usual timing, allowing for a longer duration.

Scientists have estimated a 25% probability of this El Nino reaching extraordinary levels. This unfortunate development poses a significant threat to rice farmers, particularly in Asia, where 90% of the world’s rice is cultivated and consumed.

A robust El Nino typically translates to reduced rainfall, which could prove disastrous for this water-dependent crop.

Throughout history, the occurrence of El Nino events has been closely associated with the occurrence of extreme weather phenomena.

El Nino, a climatic phenomenon characterized by the abnormal warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, has been known to unleash a wide range of weather disturbances across the globe.

These disturbances can vary from prolonged droughts to devastating floods, causing significant impacts on various sectors such as agriculture, ecosystems, and human settlements.

The severity and duration of these extreme weather events have been observed to vary across different El Nino episodes, making it crucial for scientists and policymakers to closely monitor and study the patterns and impacts of these phenomena.

By understanding the past occurrences of El Nino and their associated extreme weather events, we can better prepare for and mitigate the potential risks and damages that may arise in the future.

Abdullah Mamun, a research analyst at the esteemed International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), has raised concern over the current state of rising rice prices, attributing it to the shortfall in production.

This alarming trend has already triggered a series of “alarm bells” within the industry. In fact, recent data reveals that the average price of 5% broken white rice in Thailand during June was approximately 16% higher than the average price recorded last year.

This significant increase in rice prices not only disrupts the stability of the market but also poses a potential threat to global food security.

As such, it is imperative for policymakers, researchers, and stakeholders to closely monitor and address this issue to ensure the availability and affordability of this staple food for consumers worldwide.

The global stock levels of rice have experienced a significant decline since the previous year, and one of the contributing factors to this decline can be attributed to the devastating floods that occurred in Pakistan, a major exporter of rice.

However, the challenges faced by rice-producing countries may be further exacerbated by this year’s El Nino phenomenon.

This weather pattern has the potential to amplify existing difficulties, such as the reduced availability of fertilizer due to ongoing conflicts and certain countries implementing export restrictions on rice.

In light of these circumstances, a recent report conducted by the reputable research firm BMI has highlighted the vulnerability of countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Nepal to these challenges.

The report emphasizes the uncertainty that lies ahead, as stated by Mamun, an expert in the field.

In recent times, there has been a concerning trend of global average temperatures reaching unprecedented levels.

This has had a significant impact on various regions, as evident from the lighter than usual monsoon rains experienced in India towards the end of June.

Recognizing the potential consequences of these weather patterns, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has urged his ministers to prepare for an extended dry season.

Moreover, authorities in the Philippines have taken proactive measures to carefully manage water resources in order to safeguard vulnerable areas.

The repercussions of these climate changes are not limited to water scarcity alone, as several countries now face the imminent threat of food shortages.

Indonesia, in particular, suffered greatly from India’s decision to restrict rice exports last year due to insufficient rainfall and an unprecedented heat wave that severely affected wheat crops.

As a result, concerns were raised about the potential surge in domestic food prices. To address this pressing issue, India recently announced its plans to provide more than 1 million metric tons of rice to countries such as Indonesia, Senegal, and Gambia, thereby assisting them in meeting their food security needs.

Fertilizer plays a crucial role in agricultural systems by providing essential nutrients to plants, boosting yields, and ensuring food security.

One key factor influencing fertilizer availability and prices is the geopolitical landscape. A notable incident occurred last year when China, a prominent fertilizer producer, limited its fertilizer exports to maintain stable domestic prices amidst a series of sanctions imposed on Belarus due to human rights violations.

Although these sanctions were not directly targeted at fertilizers, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has disrupted the transportation of the three primary chemical fertilizers: potash, phosphorus, and nitrogen.

Seeking alternatives to the Belarusian potash shipments, Bangladesh managed to find suppliers in Canada.

However, for several nations, the situation remains challenging, as they continue to search for new sources of fertilizer.

Farmers, such as Abu Bakar Siddique, who cultivates a 1.2-hectare (3-acre) plot in northern Bangladesh, were fortunate enough to have adequate fertilizer supplies last year to maintain steady yields.

However, a decrease in rainfall prompted increased reliance on electric pumps during the winter harvest, coinciding with power shortages due to war-related shortages of diesel and coal.

Consequently, farmers like Siddique have experienced escalated costs, further exacerbating the challenges posed by volatile fertilizer availability.

The intricate interplay of geopolitical factors and adverse weather conditions underscores the vulnerability of agricultural production systems and the potential socioeconomic ramifications.

The search for alternative sources of fertilizers and the quest for sustainable agricultural practices that reduce dependence on external sources of fertilizer are critical steps towards ensuring long-term food security and stability.

According to Beau Damen, a natural resources officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization in Bangkok, Thailand, each El Nino event is unique, but historical patterns indicate that South and Southeast Asia will experience a scarcity of rainfall, leading to dry soil and subsequent consequences in the following years.

Damen suggests that certain countries, such as Indonesia, may be particularly susceptible to the initial stages of the phenomenon. In response to this potential threat, Kusnan, a farmer in Indonesia’s East Java, stated that rice farmers in his region have attempted to mitigate the impact by planting earlier, in the hopes that when El Nino strikes, the rice crops will be ready for harvest and require less water.

Kusnan, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name and expressed optimism that the high yields from the previous year would help counterbalance any potential losses in the upcoming season.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has recently emphasized the utmost importance of effectively managing water resources in the upcoming weeks.

He has issued a stern warning, highlighting the potential for a confluence of detrimental factors, such as export restrictions and fertilizer shortages, which, when combined with the already existing El Nino phenomenon, could result in an exceptionally devastating event.

This call to action underscores the critical need for proactive measures to ensure the sustainable utilization and preservation of water, as the nation braces itself for the impending challenges that lie ahead.

The President’s explicit recognition of these potential threats serves as an urgent reminder of the pressing need for comprehensive strategies and policies to mitigate the adverse impacts of this multifaceted crisis.

Baldev Singh, a 52-year-old farmer residing in the northern region of India’s Punjab state, finds himself plagued with concerns.

As per his usual practice, he commences the sowing of rice crops from late June, extending until mid-July, relying heavily on the timely arrival of the monsoon rains to inundate the paddies.

However, this year has proven to be a source of distress for him. By early this month, a mere fraction, less than a tenth, of the customary rainfall had materialized.

To compound the issue, floods mercilessly swept through northern India, mercilessly battering the tender young crops that had just been planted. This unfortunate turn of events has left Baldev Singh in a state of deep apprehension, as the livelihood of his family and the success of his farming venture now hang precariously in the balance.

Since the 1960s, the government has been actively promoting the cultivation of rice among Punjab farmers alongside their traditional wheat crops as a means to enhance India’s food security.

However, it is worth noting that farmers like Singh, who do not typically consume rice themselves, have persistently engaged in its cultivation despite the adverse consequences it entails.

One such consequence is the depletion of the region’s aquifers due to the irrigation demands of rice fields.

Nevertheless, Singh remains steadfast in his decision to grow rice, primarily due to the assurance of government purchases at predetermined prices.

This practice highlights the intricate dynamics between government policies, agricultural practices, and individual farmer preferences, ultimately shaping the agricultural landscape of Punjab.

In light of the scarcity of rain, Singh may find himself compelled to resort to the arduous task of digging wells.

Such a predicament arises from the pressing need for water, as last year he had to dig down a staggering depth of 200 feet, equivalent to approximately 60 meters, in order to access this vital resource.

The dire consequences of this water scarcity are evident in Singh’s lamentation, as he expresses his concerns about the future and the uncertain path that lies ahead.

The cultivation of rice, in particular, has proven to be a source of great distress and despair, leading him to ponder the potential ramifications that this ongoing water crisis may have on his livelihood and the well-being of his community.