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The far-reaching implications of climate change-affected food production in South Asia

Onion crop in soil

In September 2020, India imposed a ban on onion exports due to the vegetable’s shortage in the domestic market. One of the reasons for the shortfall in onion supplies was excessive rain in several parts of the country in August. This step taken by the Indian government sent ripples across the region, particularly in countries such as Bangladesh. In fact, Bangladesh also registered its protest against India’s “unannounced” move, which had led to a surge in the price of the staple food in the country.

In October, unexpected rains yet again wreaked havoc in several parts of India, leading to a poor harvest and subsequent hike in onion prices. Farmers across the world are severely affected by unpredictable rainfall patterns and variable water availability. Furthermore, the volatility of yields and prices has adverse implications not just for livelihoods and food security within the country, but also for cross-border food trade and hence for broader regional and global geopolitical and geoeconomic scenarios.

Food prices and social unrest

Food insecurity-related social unrest may not be very common in South Asia, but several studies have highlighted the linkages between the two. According to one study, during 2005-15, Pakistan experienced at least 19 “major incidents” (such as riots, protests and demonstrations) over “food prices and availability”. In India, there have been reports of minor localised scuffles as well as protests over rising food prices. Another study claims that “harvest loss is robustly associated with increased levels of political violence” in India.

Some of these studies are based on problematic assumptions and lack important context: for instance, in 2008, international media reported garment workers’ protests in Bangladesh as “food price riots”. However, later studies noted that the ‘protests’ were not over food prices, but rather over corruption and labour rights’ abuses, among other things. Nevertheless, it is evident that food price volatilities can increase tensions and exacerbate other grievances and fault lines.

Climate change, food production, and geopolitical/geoeconomic implications

Rising food prices in South Asia have contributed to geopolitical shifts in the past. Take the case of onion, which is an important ingredient in the majority of South Asian cuisines. A spike in its price has had far-reaching implications in the region as a whole. Central and state governments have fallen in India as a result of rising onion prices. For example, in 1998, the loss of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Delhi state election was attributed partly to the spike in onion prices. Similarly, the 1980 national/general (Lok Sabha – lower house of the Indian parliament) election is famously termed the “onion election”, because of the role played by the soaring prices of this vegetable in the fall of the first non-Congress-led government in independent India. It is such an integral part of the daily lives of the people in the region that it is linked very closely with the condition of the national economies themselves.

The 2020 ban was not the first time that onion exports have been banned by India. In 2010, when the onion prices skyrocketed, India imposed a similar ban and was even forced to import onions from its ‘arch-rival’, Pakistan, to curb inflation. Similarly, in 2019, onion yield was adversely affected by extreme and unseasonal rainfall in India. While there are several factors that have contributed to price volatility over the years such as hoarding, price-ramping by traders and transportation challenges, climate change-induced erratic rainfall patterns (causing floods and droughts) have added to the pressures within local and regional food markets. Increasingly, India, which is the world’s second largest onion producer (after China), has been resorting to temporary export bans as well as imports from other countries to tackle the price rise.

The temporary ban on onion exports India imposed in 2019 affected all South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. India’s decision caused a steep rise in onion prices in these countries. Bangladesh’s dependence on Indian onion exports was particularly immense, with nearly 75 percent of its onion imports coming from India. This consequently pushed Bangladesh to import onions from Pakistan after a break of 15 years. Meanwhile, both Bangladesh and India started to import onions from other countries such as Turkey and Egypt to meet their domestic demands. India’s case was somewhat unprecedented, as India-Turkey relations had been significantly strained over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s remarks on Kashmir, wherein he took Pakistan’s side regarding India’s move to revoke the territory’s special autonomous status. Turkey’s exports constituted almost 50 percent of India’s onion imports. Incidentally, Turkey also applied brakes on its exports because of extreme shortage of onions and food inflation in the country.

Building resilience in global food markets is crucial

In today’s world, the resilience of the global food market is critical to maintaining peace and stability. The food security of various countries is interconnected, which could even drive them to treat food and agricultural products as strategic assets rather than commodities. Countries could put various types of restrictions on their food exports, based on their conceptions of national interest. At the same time, while some market disruptions may create opportunities for geopolitical thaw between adversaries (such as Bangladesh-Pakistan relations), it could also strain relations, as seen in the case of India-Bangladesh relations this year.

Climate change is already compounding the existing stresses in various contexts. The South Asian region is afflicted by multiple crises currently. Apart from COVID-19 and stagnant economic growth, untimely and heavy precipitation events have caused suffering across the region. The governments in the region have been engaged in building resilience in their food markets at the local and national levels, but more needs to be done to secure the regional and global food market to minimise the impacts of climate shocks through multilateral cooperation.

Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India.

[The views expressed in this article are personal.]