An apple orchard in the foothills of the Himalayas
Orchards like this one blanket the foothills of the Himalayas, India's primary apple-growing region. Credit:
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Climate change is to apples, what apples are to doctors. And, for India – where the northern Himalayan states of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh account for three-fourths of the fruit’s total cultivation – the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Consider this: India is the fourth-highest producer of apples globally. In 2016-17, 21,085 metric tonnes of the fruit worth Rs 57.76 crore were exported as per the National Horticultural Board (NHB). But things aren’t all well.

Take for instance, the case of Himachal Pradesh. Apple production in the state increased from 12,000 tonnes in 1960-61 to 394,000 tonnes in 1998-99.

But since then, there has been a steady decline in productivity, from an average yield of 10.84 tonnes per hectare in 1981-82, to just 0.88 tonnes per hectare by 1999-2000, as per the National Horticulture Board (NHB).

A renewed emphasis from the government with different measures like orchard rejuvenation saw an increase of productivity to 6.9 tonnes per hectare by 2013-14, but by 2016-17 this again fell to 4.4 tonnes per hectare.

“There are different factors for the lack of productivity in the state, ranging from bad management of orchards to changes in cultivation practice. But abnormal climatic conditions have definitely taken their toll,” an official said.

But farmers are increasingly realising that the ‘abnormal’ is fast becoming the new normal in the Himalayas.

In 2018, the authoritative study, The Hindu Kush Himalayas Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People came with a dire warning: act or be prepared for the consequences.

It said “even the most ambitious Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, would lead to a 2.1 degree Celsius spike in temperatures here and the melting of one-third of the region’s glaciers by the end of this century.”

For the crores of people who depend on the Himalayas for food, water and energy (in India, 70 percent of the water needs of the Himalayan region is met by melting of glaciers during summer), this would be devastating.

Uncertain Times

A 2016 study, titled, ‘Impact of Climate Change on Apple Production in India: A Review’, by scientists from Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, Nauni, at Solan looked at the fruit production and meteorological data for the preceding four years and found that it indicated a “significant role of the abnormal climatic factors during flowering and fruit development in lowering apple productivity.”

Apart from factors that the farmers could control to a certain extent, such as moisture or soil structure, it pointed out that amongst “all the climatic components, temperature seems to be the most crucial factor in apple crop productivity”. It added that the role of “spring frosts, hails, summer droughts and unseasonal spring rain in lowering the productivity and fruit quality cannot be overlooked.”

Apples require approximately 700 to 1000 chilling hours to flower. Some require 1000-1500 hours. But melting snow caps have reduced the span of winters, Niranjan Singh, lead author of the study, told News18.

He added that melting ice also means rising sea levels, which in turn leads to erratic and unseasonal rain and hail.

Climatic factors have thus wreaked havoc on apple productions and quality by disrupting its natural flowering seasons and even pollination systems. The shape and size of Himalayan apples, Niranjan stresses, has changed.

Over the decades, farmers started shifting to varieties that did not require as many chilling hours. “The drop in quality has led to farmers in apple belts of regions like Kullu and Solan to shift completely from apples to other fruits such as peaches, apricots, pomegranates and kiwi.”

In the past decade, the incidence of premature and freak snowfall in Himachal Pradesh has seen a clear increase, while there has been a decrease in overall snowfall. In 2018, Lahaul and Spiti received heavy snowfall in the month of September. This year, Lahaul, an area that gets very little to no rainfall, received snowfall as early as August 17 – the earliest it has snowed in the area in the past decade, as per IMD director Manmohan Singh.

In 2019, Himachal also received freak spells of heavy rain and at least 24 lives were lost in August due to rain-related incidents and flooding. In one day, Himachal received 102 mm rainfall in a 24-hour spell, the highest in 70 years. Mirroring the larger pattern of unpredictable and sporadic intense rainfall, followed by lower levels of precipitation across the Himalayas, the state saw 12 percent less rainfall this monsoon than the annual average.

The 2001-2010 decade witnessed a rise in intensity and occurrence of extreme weather events such as heavy rain, severe storm, heat waves, severe droughts and splash flooding. In the past 50 years, incidents of extreme events of intense rain have doubled.

Singh though remained cautious and warned, “To correlate all instances of unusual weather phenomenon as a direct result of climate change would be rash,” he said.

But the losses are concrete. Just two days of snowfall last year, from September 22 to September 24 had reportedly led to a loss of Rs 94 crore, with multiple crops, including apples being impacted in Lahaul and Spiti. And yet, Shimla-based apple grower Ram Lal Chauhan felt that more than unseasonal snow, it was that lack of irrigation and rising temperatures that posed a bigger threat.

Warmer winters and tepid summers affect apple quality and the farmer rues that global warming has been consistently affecting the quality of fruit.

Rising Temperatures, New Heights

Temperatures of 7 degree Celsius or less are required to meet the chilling requirements of apples. But farmers said that poor snowfall and rising temperatures have resulted in bud break being erratic and delayed flowering. Apart from this, less snowfall during the winters also results in drier soil while spring frosts in the past decade have led to damaged crop, said the 2016 study.

“This year, the season was set back by 15 days but thankfully, we had good production,” Chauhan said.

Suraj Tayal, a Shimla-based farmer whose 50-year-old orchard in Rohru in Himachal Pradesh is amongst the oldest in the area said that “global warming and climate change” has made “everything very uncertain”.

“Things have completely changed. The quality and the health of the apple that we have today, compared to what we had even 10-years-ago is totally different. The best quality apples require about 300 chilling hours. That is when the skin of the apple is tight, but for that you need at least 2-3 feet of snow. Otherwise, the apple is overripe and is prone to infections from diseases,” he said.

Tayal pointed out that newer varieties of fast-growing apples imported from different countries like Italy were also prone to unfamiliar diseases. “You have to then import the medicine and the sprays to cure the plants. That is an additional cost,” he added.

Officials added that the European red mite in apple had almost become an epidemic in the apple growing regions of the state, while damage by other pests like shot hole borers and wooly apple aphid had become more prominent.

“Earlier, in 1970s…farmers routinely used four sprays for pest control. By 2016, this was up to 12 per year. This will only increase,” said an official of the state government. The 2016 study added, “Increasing incidence of pest and disease due to climate change comprises a shift in disease ecology and played a vital role in apple production…Some minor pests may become major pests in the future. Added to these, vector population may increase and new pathogens may emerge due to ecological and climatic change.”

While the 2016 study also pointed out that the extinct plantations of apple from Rajgarh in Sirmaur and lower areas of Kullu were “live examples of impact of climate change”, Chauhan pointed out another change.

A decade and a half earlier, he said, there were no apples grown in high altitude districts like Spiti and Lahul. But climate change and increasingly erratic climatic variables have compelled farmers to move up.

The hypothesis is one that has recently been gaining consensus among agrarian experts such as Dehradun-based farmer rights activist and ‎founder of Himalayan Action Research Centre (HARC), Mahendra Singh Kunwar. He noted similar migratory patterns among apple growers of Uttarakhand.

Kunwar points out that the current climatic conditions were not just compelling farmers to change locations but also shift to other crops. As per Singh, the entire apple belts of Kullu and Solan have shifted to growing apricots, peaches and fruits other than apple.

The Situation Now

Climbing to newer heights of the Himalayas might be a temporary solution to meeting chilling requirements but Niranjan Singh warns that the shift up could cause a permanent change in transpiration patterns that would encourage erratic weather anomalies such as unseasonable rain and snow. “The problem will start to manifest itself in about 10-15 years when the region gets more plantation,” Singh said.

But in spite of a “great yield” this year, farmers across Himachal Pradesh told News18 that they were suffering. “There is just no one willing to buy. The best quality apple that earlier sold for Rs 65 per kg is now selling at Rs 55 per kg, and the cheaper variety that went for Rs 50 per kg last year, is being sold at Rs 40 per year. A 28 kg box that is being sold Rs 1,100 this year was sold at Rs 1,500 last year,” said Tayal, adding that the economic downturn across the country was a key factor.

Floods in key states where a bulk of Himachal’s apples are usually sold — Maharashtra, Gujarat and prominent trading hubs of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka — drove down demand, added experts.

Apart from unseasonal and unexpected climatic conditions, a tapestry of other factors has also been impacting crops – from deforestation and mining resulting in land degradation and making the area more vulnerable to drought, to conflict with wildlife.

In Uttarakhand, for instance, conflict with monkeys has driven many farmers to grow medicinal plants like tulsi (holy basil) and selling tulsi-infused tea in markets.

But even if the farmer was to protect his crops from pests and have favourable climatic conditions, his job doesn’t end there. They must also physically transport the produce to mandis (wholesale markets). “They must also find their own market and set up the sale of their produce. That should not be the producer’s headache,” said Kunwar. In Uttarakhand, where occurrences of cloudburst and hailstorms have increasingly been affecting apple production due to shorter winters, farmers must find ways to store produce for long term and transport it to markets. Even if a farmer manages to protect his crop from snow or hail, he will never reach the market if roads are buried in snow or flooded with rainwater, says farmer and activist Aswal Ratan.

“We can’t control the weather, but it is the state government’s responsibility to ensure mobility for us,” an indignant Ratan tells News18, adding that inadequate cold storage facilities in the upper Himalayas were a key challenge faced by farmers.

This story originally appeared in News18. It is republished here as part of Eos’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.