India is the world's largest producer and user of sugar. A significant crop for the economy is sugarcane, which provides around 10% of the nation's agricultural output, and 50 million farmers and others depend on them for a living.
The significance of sugarcane to India is well known. It is necessary to prevent the sugar industry from growing further because it uses too much water. To produce 1 kilogram of sugar, the crop requires approximately 2,000 liters of water.
The effects of climate change are being felt throughout the industry. According to a government assessment, intense heat or extreme cold reduces the quality of the sugarcane juice and the total end sugar product. Temperatures above 35°C to 40°C hinder the growth of the sugarcane crop and lower the overall output. India experienced a severe heatwave in 2022, which resulted in the country's hottest March in the previous 122 years. Temperatures of over 46 degrees Celsius were recorded in Maharashtra, while in the Uttar Pradesh district of Banda, they reached 49 degrees Celsius. According to a Lancet analysis, the number of deaths attributable to heat in India among those over 65 increased by 55% between 2000 and 2004 and 2017 and 2021.
In the months of July and October after the heatwave, Maharashtra witnessed torrential rains that severely devastated many sugarcane crops. Up until mid-September, Uttar Pradesh experienced drought-like conditions, which were then abruptly followed by significant rain. According to a study by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water, a Delhi-based think tank, floods in Maharashtra increased by six times between 1970 and 2019.
Even with these climate-related difficulties, sugarcane is still thought to be a better investment than other crops. According to a government report, the net return on growing sugarcane is between 200% and 250% more than that of cotton or wheat. The issue is not only the heat. Late in September, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra were devastated by torrential rains that destroyed 2.3 million hectares (23,000 sq km) of crops, including sugarcane. This severe rain causes saturated soil, affecting seed germination and slowing down root development.
People who depend on related livelihoods, such as raising bulls or moving commodities, are likewise impacted by the poor harvests brought on by excessive flooding. Consecutive floods significantly negatively impact parts of western Maharashtra where sugarcane is planted close to a river. Farmers are switching to bamboo in those locations.
Why do farmers keep growing sugarcane if these areas are so prone to droughts and floods? The straightforward response is that, in contrast to other products like cotton and soybeans, sugarcane brings them an assured price since it is regulated by the government. The entire sugar sector is regulated in India, from production to export. Farmers know every last cane will be bought since they have a guaranteed buyer and price. But in reality, the farmers suffer since the payments are frequently delayed for a year or even longer. Farmers are trying to make ends meet and are incurring debt as a result of late payments. Farmers only have control over seeding; neither productivity nor the end price is under their control.
The only practical option in such a case is to modify crop patterns in light of the realities of climate change, as doing otherwise will negatively affect yield. In order to assist the sugar industry and help it adapt to the changing climate in northern India, a 2019 study by a group of Indian scientists suggested the development of effective irrigation practices, the adoption of a heat-tolerant cane variety, and a reduction in the use of fossil fuel fertilisers.
Farmers might also adopt solar-powered pumps, purchase crop insurance, and receive training on how to use weather forecasting technologies, which are accessible but underutilised owing to a lack of awareness.