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Climate crisis alters farm supplies, jacks up prices

May 22, 2022

LAHORE: This year’s severe heatwave induced by climate change has altered plant growth to such an extent that it drastically affected farm production both in terms of quantity and quality, inflicting the first major hit on horticulture crops.

As the rare phenomenon swept one of the fertile plains in Pakistan, a place where irrigation supplies are considered a constant factor, farmers were caught unprepared. Their difficulties multiplied with shortage of river water, which grossly injured plants during flowering, fruiting and maturity stages.

When The News broke a story on March 9, 2022 that an unusual surge in temperatures might cause reduction in wheat production due to shivering of grains and forced maturity, no one knew that the spell would linger on for an extended period with unprecedented intensity. There was not a single alert issued at that time by any federal or provincial department concerned about the coming heatwave and its likely impact on the agriculture sector.

However, the heatwave had a massive impact on the recently-harvested wheat crop, while the output of sugarcane and maize dropped by about 8-10 percent. Similar was the case of horticulture crops such as fruits and vegetables including mango, lemon and other citrus fruits, tomato, green chilies, cucumber, okra, and bitter gourd.

Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) expressed grave concern regarding the rising trend in heatwave that hit the entire agriculture sector of the country. A senior official said that effect of such stresses were already being seen on fields. An abnormal increase in temperature and water stress at critical plant stages results in reduced output and deteriorating quality of produce.

Punjab Agriculture Department confirmed adverse impact of high mercury levels and water paucity on the farming sector. A senior official while confirming that a formal assessment was yet to be made, admitted that the department expected a drop of 25-35 percent in mango production, massive drop of up to 50 percent in lemon, sweet lime types of citrus fruits, including locally known varieties of mosummi and mitha, and a drastic cut in tomato production.

He however expressed the hope that the exportable kinnow variety might not suffer as much as other citrus fruits. Quality of produce was also severely compromised, he added.

The consequent hike in prices of vegetables and fruits nowadays were testimony to what supply chain disruption meant for the market. Experts believed that such abiotic stresses involving weather related anomalies were responsible for crop loss and price hike in addition to spiralling cost of production etc.

According to prices monitored by Directorate of Agriculture (Economics and Marketing) Punjab, there has been visible upward trend in prices of vegetables and fruits during the last couple of months if compared with the rates of last year during the same period.

Tomato prices surged 210 percent across Punjab in 10 wholesale markets, averaging Rs41.35/kg on May 20, 2022 against Rs13.35/kg observed on the same day last year. Onion price saw a spike of 217 percent, averaging at Rs53.55/kg against last year’s Rs16.90/kg.

Similarly, the average price of green chilies went up 69 percent to Rs55.22/kg on May 20, 2022 to Rs32.60/kg recorded on the corresponding day last year. Cucumber rates jumped up 58 percent to Rs42.50/kg against Rs26.85/kg registered on the same day last year. Brinjal price increased 54 percent to Rs46.05/kg against Rs29.95/kg observed last year. The price of bitter gourd ballooned 45 percent to Rs53.45/kg against last year’s Rs36.65/kg.

Various varieties of mangoes have been arriving in the market much earlier than expected. Price trends show a jump of Rs30-50/kg on mangoes, when compared with last year.

Then there is the curious case of falling lemon supplies. Traditionalists consider this fall in lemon supplies a routine phenomenon due to its seasonal shortage. However, as lemon cultivation practices have evolved with the passage of time, arrival of this highly-sought fruit continues almost round the year although in variable quantities.

Owing to extreme heat stress this year, the lemon (china) variety has completely vanished from the market. Last year, it was available in reasonable quantities, which was also reflected in its prevalent price. The average price of lemon (china) last year was Rs117/kg in the third week of May. This year, it has disappeared from the supply chain, according to official data.

However, the desi variety of lemon is reportedly available at average rate of Rs300/kg against last year’s Rs196/kg, showing an upsurge of 53 percent in its rates.

Interestingly, four new lemon markets were recorded by the Punjab Directorate of Agriculture, namely Narowal, Rawalpindi, Sialkot and Vehari. Moreover, arrival of lemon at Jhelum wholesale market nosedived by a staggering 2,270 percent during April 1-May 20, 2022 period if compared with the arrivals during the corresponding period last year.

Widespread lemon output failure, early flowing, and maturity are being considered the first major climate change-related causality mainly due to negative impact of higher temperatures.

Dr Hafeez-ur-Rehman, former senior scientist of National Agriculture Research Council (NARC) on Saturday said the severe effect of heat stress had been seen during the flowering and fruit-setting stage with abnormalities in temperature ranging between five and eight degree Celsius. “Dry conditions with less than 30 percent of humidity and high temperature up to 37-42 degrees at early flowering stage, can affect citrus trees such as lemon, sweet lime and shikri.”

His opinion has been backed by the changing weather pattern this year. Sargodha, the prime citrus producing area in Punjab witnessed high temperature right from March 10-12 in excess of five centigrade to 35-36C against average 29-30C during the first spring month when flowering used to take place. In April, mercury level shot up abnormally to 37-40C from the first week against normal pattern of rising temperatures in the last week, putting excess stress on trees.

Hence, the soaring temperatures, shortage of canal water and lower humidity levels post-mid-March caused restricted flowering and dropping of younger fruit. Other negative impacts on lemon produce were stated to be dryness of the fruit as it was almost devoid of any juice.

Mubashar Naeem, a progressive grower hailing from Layyah District, echoed similar concerns about the health of citrus plants in his area, which was a relatively new home of citrus in the province. He himself owns a citrus orchard with unique micro-irrigation system. He also provides farming services to other farmers for enhancing productivity and marketing.

“We have seen negative impact of hot and dry weather on citrus trees since mid-March,” he said, adding that warm, relatively dry and moist climate suit lemon cultivation. In general, citrus trees are not tolerant to temperatures greater than 35-36C at flowering stage. Extreme weather not only causes flower and fruit droppings, but remaining fruit also loses quality due to weather stress, he observed. In many cases, leaves of plants got affected badly and there were trees that visibly looked weak and might take long lasting negative climatic effects, he noted.

PARC Chairman Dr Azeem Khan said the unusually hot weather was a factor changing growth of farm produce in the ongoing year. He also gave example of lemon in this connection, partly blaming climate change.

Along with increase in temperature, lack of rains and canal water scarcity at critical early stages led to quantity and quality loss for the fruit. However, he said, it was highly likely that kinnow trees avoided negative impact of weather-related stresses.

Dr Anjum Buttar, Director General, Agriculture Extension, said the sudden fluctuations in temperature apparently led to blossoms falling off of many plants in late March and April.

These plants faced summer heat stress right from spring season. This lengthy on-going exposure to the high temperatures and relative low humidity during the spring and early summer months seriously weakened or fatally injured even the hardiest of plants. “Hence, we have seen combined action of high temperatures and water deprivation leading to partial failure of grain, vegetable and fruit crops,” he added.

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