India’s ambitious drive to expand domestic palm oil production fails to consider the subcontinent’s changing climate, analysis shows. It’s an oversight which may derail the country’s plans to become self-sufficient in the oil.
With US$9.6 billion worth imported in 2021, India is the world’s biggest buyer of palm oil, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia. It hopes to shift part of the present and future revenues of this market to the pockets of its farmers, by increasing the country’s cultivated area of oil palm to 1 million hectares by 2026, up from 350,000 hectares in 2019.
Once established, palms take three to four years to become productive, and will bear fruit for 20 to 25 years. Researchers have been working with the government to identify the most suitable ecosystems for such a long-term undertaking. In the past, these could have been effectively identified by observing historical climate data to predict rainfall, among other factors. But as climate change alters weather and water patterns across the globe, such information tells only part of the story.
M.V. Prasad, principal scientist for the palm oil branch of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), explains that the institute, which operates under the government of India, has identified nearly 2.8 million hectares of suitable land in 18 states. The north-east of the country is seen as particularly promising. “The plan looks at water requirements for irrigation, rainfall, temperature and relative humidity, also keeping in mind that palm oil production should not disturb forest cover nor local flora and fauna.” Only areas with adequate humidity and water availability have been earmarked for expansion, Prasad says.
Roxy Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, notes that “the assessment considers the long-term average conditions of the past rainfall (1950–2000) over India to zoom in on regions with favourable rainfall.” However, he explains, “rainfall patterns have changed during this period, with a reducing trend over central and north India, and the assessment does not consider these observed changes,” instead averaging out the results over the examined 50 years.
“Since oil palm cultivation is planned for the near future,” Koll adds, “we need to consider future changes in rainfall gauged from climate projections, which the assessment also omits.”
More deluge, less rain
Around the world, climate change is exacerbating extremes, whether it’s drought or floods, says Samantha Kuzma, a research analyst responsible for Aqueduct, a data project from the World Resources Institute (WRI). “And those things could even happen in the same place.”
The Indian subcontinent is an example of this trend. Due to climate change, researchers expect a higher number of storms to bring a lot of water at once, while the total rainfall will keep declining over the coming decades. When a lot of rains falls in a short time, the water is washed away before it can seep into the ground and replenish aquifers.
In a 2015 paper, Koll observed that contrary to what previous studies suggested, climate change is making the Indian monsoon weaker, leading to a significant decrease in overall precipitation in north and central India, including north-eastern regions and the Bay of Bengal. Between 1901 and 2012, the period analysed by Koll and his team, rain also declined across the Western Ghats mountain range, in the south of India, particularly in the state of Kerala.
These are all areas that the Indian government deems most suitable for expansion, based on the data analysis that, according to Koll, misses the way weather variability is evolving.
How thirsty is oil palm?
ICAR’s M.V. Prasad says that while oil palm requires more water than other edible oils such as groundnut, sunflower or sesame, it also produces around five times more per hectare.
Oil palms could also require less water than other crops they replace, but crop water requirements can vary a lot in India and if rain continues to decline, impacts on agriculture and other human activities would be felt regardless.
Globally, agriculture remains the largest drain on freshwater, with about 70% of use going to feed crops, says Kuzma. But as the population grows, so does its water demand, she says. “It’s in our clothing, it’s in our cell phones, it’s in our cooling needs, so the more people you have, the more water we need to meet their demands.” Communities will have to reshape agriculture in the context of an increasingly industrialised, thirsty society. And the role of water-intensive crops hangs in the balance.
According to Aqueduct, oil palm cultivation in Latin America, West Africa and Southeast Asia will all be subjected to some degree of water stress in the coming 20 years, with particular severity in Venezuela and the Philippines. In 2020–2021, India’s palm oil production was around 0.29 million tonnes, a fraction of the 73.8 million tonnes produced globally in the same year. If it wants to expand as planned, water stress is an underestimated challenge that farmers will have to reckon with.
“Even though I am an oil palm farmer,” says K Kranthi Kumar Reddy, general secretary of the National Oil Palm Farmers’ Association, “my personal opinion is that India should diversify its vegetable oil [production], not just depend on palm oil. Because any monoculture is dangerous for the environment.”
He says that oil palm is a more lucrative crop compared to many alternatives, and that’s why he has chosen it for his farm. But he concedes that water scarcity is a problem which is likely to get worse as farmers need to dig increasingly deeper wells to reach depleting aquifers. This, combined with manpower shortage and increasing fertiliser and fuel costs means that “agriculture is not going to be remunerative in future at all.” Organic farming, Reddy says, can help reduce water consumption, but diversification remains key to keep Indian agriculture environmentally and financially sustainable. “Oil palm has become the main source of edible oil in India, due to adverse market conditions for other oils,” he explains. “But as a result farmers suffer.”
This article was originally published on China Dialogue.