Change in climate and its toll on Apple crop

Himachal Pradesh, renowned for its apple production, is grappling with significant climate-induced challenges. Warmer winters, erratic rainfall, and reduced snowfall are adversely affecting apple cultivation, prompting a shift towards higher altitudes. This transition is driven by the need for high chilling hours essential for apple quality, which are increasingly unavailable at lower elevations due to rising temperatures.

Climatic Change Impact on Apple’s Economy

The apple economy, valued at approximately Rs 6,000 crore, is crucial to the livelihoods of over four lakh families in Himachal Pradesh. However, according to Sanjay Chauhan, co-convenor of HP Sanyukt Kisan Manch, production has declined markedly over the past two to three decades, with orchardist Chattar Singh Kalet from Shimla noting a 30% reduction in yields and a shortened lifespan for traditional apple varieties like Mauli, Gala, Anna, and Golden. The decrease in production is linked to inadequate snowfall between December and February and untimely rains and hailstorms during the critical flowering and fruiting periods from March to June.

Reduction in Profitability and Cost Increase

Apple growers face rising costs and declining profitability due to climate change. Sujat Chauhan, an apple grower from Theog, highlighted the increasing expense of fertilizers and pesticides. A 50 kg bag of fertilizer, which cost Rs 800 to Rs 1,100 three years ago, now ranges from Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000. Similarly, the price of pesticide drums has nearly doubled. These increased costs compound the financial strain on growers already dealing with decreased yields.

Extreme Weather and Damage to Apple Crop

Incessant and untimely rains, particularly during the monsoon season, have caused extensive damage across apple-growing districts like Shimla, Mandi, Sirmaur, Kullu, Chamba, and Kinnaur. A horticulture development official, who requested anonymity, reported that 59,338 farmers were affected, with a total loss estimated at Rs 162 crore and 25,237 hectares impacted. The state government compensates only those farmers who suffer more than a 33% loss, leaving many without sufficient aid.

Shifting of the Apple Belt to a higher altitude

The shifting of the apple belt to higher altitudes in regions such as Kullu, Kinnaur, Lahaul, and Spiti is a direct consequence of changing climatic conditions. A 2020 study documented an average temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius by October, a 2-10% reduction in rainfall, and a significant rise in CO2 concentrations. These changes have led to reduced apple yields and a decline in pollinators like bees and butterflies, further affecting production. The study also indicated a 40-50% loss in yield due to higher temperatures and reduced cold hours necessary for apple trees’ dormant period.

Quality and Quantity Decline due to climate change

Climate change not only affects the quantity but also the quality of apples. Higher temperatures during critical growth phases result in less vibrant fruit coloration and lower quality. An earlier study in 2011 emphasized that high temperatures during the summer and insufficient chilling during winter disrupt the development of vegetative and fruit-bearing buds, leading to delayed leaf budding, less fruit set, and poorer fruit quality.

Future of Apple and Strategies

To mitigate these challenges, experts and farmers suggest several strategies. Sanjay Chauhan emphasized the need for subsidies for new planting materials and a shift towards high-density cropping. Sujat Chauhan noted that incessant rains during the flowering period severely impacted pollination and fruit-setting, reducing production by 40-50% in recent years.

Farmers are increasingly adopting high-density apple varieties like Royal Delicious, Red Delicious, and Golden Delicious, which offer higher yields and are more resilient to climate variations. Despite higher initial costs for irrigation systems, plantations, and protective nets, these varieties can be planted more densely, potentially increasing yields significantly. For instance, 250 to 300 traditional apple trees can be grown on a one-hectare plot, whereas 2,000 to 3,000 high-density trees can be cultivated on the same area.

Diversification of Crop and Insurance

SK Bhardwaj, head of the environmental science department at Dr. YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, advocates for crop diversification to adapt to changing climatic conditions. He suggests that farmers should also focus on cultivating pulses, vegetables, and livestock, which can provide additional income and are less susceptible to climate fluctuations compared to apples.

Moreover, the state horticulture department encourages farmers to enroll in weather-based crop insurance schemes to cover losses due to adverse weather. Horticulture Minister Jagat Singh Negi has called for adopting high-density apple cultivation through new rootstock varieties to meet the challenges posed by global warming.

Our Conclusion

The apple industry in Himachal Pradesh, once robust and flourishing, is now facing severe threats from climate change. As the state strives to adapt through technological advancements, diversification, and insurance schemes, the journey ahead remains challenging. The experience of Himachal Pradesh serves as a crucial lesson for agricultural communities worldwide, underscoring the urgent need for adaptive strategies in the face of an increasingly unpredictable climate.

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