India heatwave throws food security for loop

A man cools off under a pipe of flowing water on a hot summer day, in New Delhi
A man cools off under a pipe of flowing water on a hot summer day in New Delhi, India, May 11, 2022. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2W4U9UX614

MUMBAI, May 12 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Scorching temperatures in India are adding to the world’s food security headache. After a brief respite, the country’s weeks-long climate change-induced heatwave returned this week, with the mercury hitting 46 degrees Celsius. It raises the risk of death by heatstroke for swathes of the population and reduces the hours people can safely work. It’s also singeing cropland, fuelling doubts about whether New Delhi will maintain its newfound role exporting wheat to help fill global grain stores from Egypt to Bangladesh depleted by the war in Ukraine.

India is one of the world's biggest wheat producers, but typically sells very little abroad. That changed as tensions mounted between Ukraine and Russia, which account for 28% of global exports read more . Selling some of India’s surplus supplies was widely seen as a neat solution to easing a global grain shortage; It also helped mute criticism in Washington about New Delhi ramping up cheap oil purchases from Moscow. As a result, India’s wheat exports grew almost six-fold year-on-year in April to 1.4 million tonnes and officials expected them to continue to rise.

That was welcome news, not least because worsening water scarcity in large parts of Brazil, the United States and Europe has sapped supplies there, leaving India as the only major supplier of wheat at present read more . But the country’s ability and willingness to step up is suddenly less certain with the country sizzling. Falling yields of the crop and rising exports have sent the monthly retail average price of wheat flour to a 12-year high, with overall food inflation at 7.7% in March. Rupee depreciation, meanwhile, is raising the cost of crucial imports, including edible oil.

To ease the pain, India’s government is reducing the wheat component of its vast food subsidy scheme that feeds some 800 million people as part of its pandemic response. India has so far held back from imposing export controls but protecting consumers at the expense of farmers has been the government’s fallback strategy to tame inflation in the past. Any restrictions also would reduce the incentive for farmers to produce in the first place, hurting India’s wider ambitions to sell more overseas. If that happens, the dilemmas its political leaders are grappling with will go global.

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are their own.)


- Parts of India recorded their highest average temperatures on record for April, and the scorching weather is continuing in May. A surge in demand for power is creating power shortages.

- Northwest and central India recorded average maximum temperatures of 35.9 and 37.78 degrees Celsius (96.6 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit) respectively in April. Temperatures for March were also at or near record highs.

- India's retail inflation rate may have surged to an 18-month high of 7.5% in April, largely driven by rising fuel and food prices and staying well above the Reserve Bank of India's upper tolerance limit for a fourth consecutive month, a Reuters poll published on May 10 read more of 45 economists found.

Editing by Antony Currie and Katrina Hamlin

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