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JAYARAJ: Climate Change Transformed India Into An Agricultural Superpower — Just Ask My Grandparents


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Vijay Jayaraj Contributor
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My grandparents survived a nationwide famine in the 1960s that pushed many Indians into abject poverty. Little did they know then that they would go on to become farmers producing some of the best rice and coconuts on the planet.

Starting with purchases of small paddies, my grandparents supplemented income from professional occupations and other businesses with profits from rice and eventually invested in coconut farms. Their story is part of India’s agricultural revolution — a transformation partly made possible by the warmer temperatures and higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide of today’s climate. (RELATED: BASTASCH: Not Even Diablo Canyon Can Save California From Its Green Energy Nightmare)

According to researchers, poverty and a scarcity of food grains caused the famine of 1960-65, which had been preceded by many similar calamities that killed tens of millions over the centuries.

However, much changed in the 1970s when India’s government invited American agronomist Norman Borlaug to work alongside Indian scientists to introduce genetically modified crop varieties that were more resistant to diseases and produced higher yields.

Along with crops that failed less frequently and provided greater profits, the green revolution of the latter 20th century was helped by moderate increases in both temperatures and CO2 levels — the latter likely a result of emissions from human activities.

Contrary to the popular narrative of a changing climate being an “existential threat,” Earth’s green plants have been recovering from the “browning” of the Little Ice Age, which occurred from the 14th to 19th centuries. Modern warmth and CO2 levels are facilitating a greening that shows up on satellite photos and contributes to record crop harvests.

British Meteorologist Hubert Lamb, founder of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, said that the Little Ice Age devastated economies with crop losses. In a widely accepted paper, he writes that a “notably warm climate in many parts of the world” existed between A.D. 1000–1200, then was followed by a cooling that culminated with the coldest temperatures between 1500 and 1700 — “the coldest phase since the last ice age occurred.”

Lamb says these changes in climate were “undoubtedly upsetting for the human economies of those times (and perhaps of any time).”

The cold eventually gave way to rising temperatures in the 18th century, well before the modern industrial revolution in Europe and North America.

The positive of effects of the modern climate are found in arid climatic zones like those in India. NASA reports: “For rain-fed wheat grown in more arid climates, such as southern Africa and India, results show that doubled carbon dioxide levels, and their associated climate change impacts, increase yield by eight percent, an increase that’s driven by decreased crop water needs of up to 50 percent. As with rain-fed maize crops in arid climates, without the carbon dioxide boost these rain-fed wheat crops do not cope as well because of the greater water stress imposed on them, resulting in a 29 percent reduction in yield.”

Despite its population doubling to 1.3 billion since the 1960s, India can now produce enough food crops for both domestic needs and exports. In fact, since 2017, the country has been registering successive record harvests of food crops.

For the 2021-22 crop year, “a record output is estimated for rice, maize, gram, dry grains, rapeseed and mustard, oilseeds and sugarcane.” At 315.72 million tons, it is 5 million tons higher than the previous crop year.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, “India is the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses, and jute, and ranks as the second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnut, vegetables, fruits, and cotton. It is also one of the leading producers of spices, livestock, and plantation crops.”

A recent Australian study reports that “CO2 fertilization correlated with an 11 per cent increase in foliage cover from 1982-2010 across parts of the arid areas studied in Australia, North America, the Middle East and Africa.”

Today’s warmth and CO2 levels are a boon to human civilization, not a bane. Just ask my grandparents.

Vijay Jayaraj is a Research Associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, VA. He holds a masters degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, UK and resides in India.

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