Fruits produced at higher altitudes in the Himalayas, such as apple, plum, peach, apricot, pear, and walnut, require snow and a cold winter to develop and flower.

Increased warming changing horticultural production in Uttarakhand: Report

With warming climate rendering certain fruit varieties less productive, farmers are shifting towards tropical alternatives which are better attuned to the altering climatic conditions

Uttarakhand has witnessed a massive shrinkage in the area under horticulture production along with the declining yields of major fruit crops in the state, according to a new report by Climate Trends.

The variations in fruit-production area in Uttarakhand between 2016-17 and 2022-23 revealed significant shifts in cultivation patterns across different fruit types. Significant declines in some fruit kinds over the last seven years, according to the report, may indicate adjustments to agricultural practices, land distribution, market dynamics, and possibly environmental factors that affect particular fruit species.

Trend in Horticulture Production in Uttarakhand between 2016-17 and 2022-23

Temperate fruits more affected than tropical fruits 

The report said that temperate fruits like pear, apricot, plum and walnut—cultivated in the higher altitudes of the Himalayas— have seen the maximum fall in production. Apples and lemons have been moderately hit. The area under apple production reduced from 25,201.58 hectares in 2016-17 to 11,327.33 hectares in 2022-23 with a corresponding 30% decline in yield. The yield of lemon varieties shrunk by 58%. Tropical fruits were less affected.

Despite nearly 49% and 42% reduction in cultivation area, production of mango and litchi remained relatively stable, with slight declines of 20% and 24% respectively. The dip is particularly remarkable for temperate fruits as compared to their tropical counterparts.

Guava showed an increase of 36.64% in production area from 3,432.67 hectares in 2016-17 to 4,690.32 hectares in 2022-23. Gooseberry and guava showed significant rises in yield marked by 63.77% and 94.89%, respectively, indicating positive trends for these fruits during the same time frame. The increase in production of guava and gooseberry, the report said, indicated a shift in focus towards fruit types that are better attuned to market demand or local conditions.

Impact of warm and dry winters

According to the report, the average temperature in Uttarakhand increased at an annual rate of 0.02°C  between 1970 and 2022. The state recorded approximately 1.5°C warming over the same period with higher elevations experiencing amplified rates of warming.

Research revealed that relatively warmer winter temperatures in the higher altitudes have accelerated snow melt triggering a rapid decline in snow cover areas. In the past 20 years, winter temperatures at high elevations of the state have increased at the rate of 0.12°C/decade. Precipitation has fallen by 11.2 mm per decade resulting in a rapid shrinking of snow cover area at the rate of -58.3 km2 /decade. In Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Pithoragarh, Rudra Prayag districts snow cover areas have shrunk by nearly 90-100 km2 in 2020 as compared to 2000.

Fruits produced at higher altitudes in the Himalayas, such as apple, plum, peach, apricot, pear, and walnut, require snow and a cold winter to develop and flower. The Himalayan region’s rising temperatures are melting snow coverings. On top of that, the early winter’s lack of precipitation is preventing the buildup of new snow, depriving temperate fruit plants of their necessary chilling hours and causing the blossoming time to shift.

Temperate trees go through a dormant phase in the winter when they stop growing to protect their cells from the damaging effects of cold temperatures. Extreme cold exposure, sometimes known as the “chilling requirement,” is required for these trees to emerge from dormancy and begin bud creation, blooming, and fruit inception. Abnormal patterns of bud-break may have resulted from exceptionally warm winters, less snowfall, and a smaller snow cover region, which in turn may have decreased flowering and temperate fruit harvests.

 “Traditional temperate crops like high quality apples have a chilling requirement of less than 7°C for 1200-1600 hours during the period of dormancy (Dec-March). Apples require two or three times more snowfall than what the region received in the past 5-10 years leading to poor quality and yield.” explained Dr Pankaj Nautiyal, head & senior scientist, horticulture, ICAR-CSSRI, Krishi Vigyan Kendra. 

In addition to posing problems like heat stress, decreased water availability, and changed precipitation patterns, higher temperatures can also have a negative impact on yields. Furthermore, shifting temperature patterns can affect the frequency and range of pests and illnesses in fruits, calling for adaptation through pest control techniques.

Uttarakhand has also been in the eye of recurring disasters ranging from extreme rainfall events, flooding, hailstorms and landslides resulting in significant damages to agricultural fields and standing crops. In 2023, 44,882 hectares of farm lands were lost to extreme weather events. Dwindling agricultural prospects have also led to widespread out migration from the hills to the plains which could also explain the shrinking area under horticultural production.

Moving towards tropical fruit cultivation

While warmer temperatures hinder the growth of winter fruits, farmers are shifting to tropical alternatives. In some districts of Uttarakhand farmers are choosing low chilling cultivars of apples or replacing hard nut fruits like plum, peach, and apricots with tropical alternatives like kiwi and pomegranate, the report added. There has also been an experimentation with high density cultivation of amrapali mango in the lower hills and valleys of Uttarkashi district which generated high returns for farmers. 

Percentage change in Area and Yield of Major Fruit Crops between 2016 and 2022-23

It is necessary to shift towards climate resilient practices to safeguard the horticulture sector from future risks. “There is a need to identify and develop location specific climate resilient varieties and management practices to reduce the impact of climate change and climate variability. Moreover, climate financing is very much essential to save the farming community from adverse weather aberrations. Another point is we need to advocate the village level agromet advisory services and its dissemination to various stakeholder in a timely manner, so that they can prepare against adverse situations and make decisions accordingly,” said  Dr Subash Nataraja, head, division of agricultural physics, ICAR-IARI, New Delhi.

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