India halts wheat exports to protect food security as Southeast Asia faces deadly heat wave

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Christopher Bonasia

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The Energy Mix

The international community is gearing for global market shocks after India, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, halted most wheat exports to protect its national food security, while advocates call for greater attention to the entire Southeast Asian region gripped by the same deadly heat wave.

“When looking at the heat wave, a lot of the media attention is focused on India, but it’s also scorching through Pakistan and Bangladesh. That whole region right now is experiencing record heat,” campaigner Saad Amer told Atmos.

“We’re getting to a point where it seems as though these are not quite heat waves anymore—but rather the changed climate in the region,” he added. “This heat in conjunction with large droughts is causing so much stress and death.”

Extreme heat first began afflicting areas of central, south, and western Asia in March, and has since “been linked to an uptick in heat-related deaths, wheat crop failures, power outages, and fires – with poor and marginalized communities particularly affected” across the region, reports Carbon Brief.

“We are seeing many cases of heat exhaustion, dysentery, body ache—and the number of viral fever cases has increased too since the last two weeks,” Dr. Madhav Thombre, a general practitioner based in Mumbai, told the Financial Times.

In India, the national wheat crop is at severe risk of “terminal heat stress,” as the seasonal timing of temperatures near 50°C threatens to overtax wheat plants and prevent them from forming grain. Although it’s too early to know exactly to what extent the weather will diminish this year’s harvest, some Indian farmers had already estimated in early May that 10 to 15% of their crop has died, Monika Tothova, an economist at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, told the Atlantic.

The losses are imposing a severe economic and mental toll on India’s farmers. In April alone, 21 farmers in the state of Punjab took their own lives because of low yields and mounting debts, reports the Globe and Mail.

With its national food security threatened by domestic wheat prices rising and food stores thinning, India made the dramatic move to ban further wheat exports on Saturday.

The government has expressed willingness to continue exporting wheat to food-deficit countries despite the ban, and even agreed on Sunday to sell half a million tonnes of wheat to Egypt. But the effects of India’s export ban will still ripple through the international community and could cause a global spike in wheat prices, especially as the market continues struggling from the exports halted in Ukraine due to the Russian invasion, along with climate-related losses in other countries. The ban thus drew near-immediate criticism from leaders of the G20 industrialized nations, reports Al Jazeera.

“If everyone starts to impose export restrictions or to close markets, that would worsen the crisis,” German agriculture minister Cem Ozdemir said at a news conference in Stuttgart. “We call on India to assume its responsibility as a G20 member.”

Other impacts are likely to follow from the heat wave’s strain on other sectors in India, like those related to power generation. As higher temperatures increase energy demand for cooling, India will need to ramp up power generation and will likely turn to its primary source—coal. Burning more of the high-emission fuel will of course exacerbate “climate change, not just in India, but around the world. It’s a vicious circle that is unsustainable, and especially for the poor,” CBC notes.

Amer pointed to the global interconnectedness of the heat wave’s effects, linking it to other issues of environmental justice, democracy, and cultural marginalization of other Southeast Asian countries that are not receiving the same attention.

“This heat in conjunction with large droughts is causing so much stress and death,” he said. “These stories that we’ve been told about the climate crisis and how it’s going to generate war and violence as a result of people fighting for resources are no longer stories. It’s not a prediction of the future—it’s happening now.”

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