El Nino threatens rice harvests as grain supplies are already squeezed by war in Ukraine

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

An El Niño is a natural, temporary, occasional warming of part of the Pacific that changes global weather patterns, and climate change makes them worse. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this one in June, a month or two earlier than usual. This gives him time to grow. Scientists say there is a one in four chance of it expanding to supersized levels.

This is bad news for rice farmers, especially in Asia where 90% of the world’s rice is grown and consumed, as a strong El Nino usually means less rainfall for the thirsty crop.

Past El Ninos brought extreme weather conditions, ranging from droughts to floods.

There are already “alarm bells ringing”, 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% off-white rice in June in Thailand was about 16% higher than last year’s average.

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

“There is uncertainty on 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 on Monday asked his ministers 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 than expected rainfall and a historic heatwave that scorched wheat, raising fears a spike in domestic food prices.

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

Fertilizer is another crucial variable. Last year China, a major producer, restricted exports to control domestic prices after fertilizers were among the exports hit by sanctions imposed on Russian ally Belarus for human rights abuses. Sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine do not specifically target fertilizers, but the war has halted shipments of the three main chemical fertilizers: potash, phosphorus and nitrogen.

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

Farmers like Abu Bakar Siddique, who farms 1.2 hectares (3 acres) in northern Bangladesh, had enough fertilizer to keep his yields stable last year. But less rainfall meant he had to rely more on electric pumps for his winter harvest at a time of power shortages due to war-related diesel and coal shortages.

“It increased my costs,” he said.

Every El Nino is different, but historical trends suggest that rare rainfall in South and Southeast Asia will dry out the soil, causing cascading effects in years to come, said Beau Damen, natural resources manager at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations based in Bangkok, Thailand. Some countries, like Indonesia, may be more vulnerable in the early stages of the phenomenon, he said.

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

Indonesian President Joko Widodo stressed the need for good water management in the coming weeks, warning that various factors, including export restrictions and fertilizer shortages, could combine with El Niño to “make it a particularly damaging event”.

Baldev Singh, a 52-year-old farmer from Punjab state in northern India, is already worried. He usually sows rice from late June to mid-July, but then needs monsoon rains to flood the paddy fields. Less than a tenth of usual rainfall had fallen earlier this month, then floods ravaged northern India, destroying young crops that had just been sown.

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

Rain being rare, Singh may have to dig wells. Last year, he dug 200 feet (60 meters) to find water.

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


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


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