Human Stories

The Indian Farmers Battling Climate Change With 10,000-year-old Emmer Wheat

Across India, farmers have been reporting major losses due to recurring climate disasters. But the traditional knowledge, skills, and crop varieties of older farmers offer a ray of hope. In the Kolhapur district of Western India, the Danawade family has been cultivating 10,000-year-old emmer wheat for generations. Could ancient grains like emmer be the key to future food security?

The rich legacy of emmer wheat

Isakaso Danawade, 78, is proud of what he did in the 1970s. “When (almost) everyone was shifting to cultivate the hybrid varieties of wheat, I stuck to Khapli Gahu (traditional emmer wheat),” he recalls. Like many farmers who resisted the sweeping modernisation of agriculture, he was doubted and mocked by those around him. 

Year after year, Isakaso, a resident of Jambhali village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, couldn’t increase the yield. While others who shifted to the hybrid varieties reported massive harvests of 1200-1500 kilograms per acre, Isakaso reported just 75% and sometimes even half of that. But he never abandoned the traditional crop, despite reductions in both demand and production. Decades later, in 2020, he saw an increasing number of people reaching out to him for seeds of Khapli Gahu. “It came as a big surprise.”

This came after Western Maharashtra witnessed one of the deadliest floods in the region’s history, ravaging hundreds of villages and destroying much of the surrounding croplands. To make matters worse, India continued to suffer from extreme climate events across the country, with persistent heavy rainfall and serious flooding in 2021 devastating crops on over 7 million hectares of agricultural land, affecting 38 million people and killing around 65,000 cattle.1 “Most of the hybrid wheat, sorghum, and maize varieties couldn’t survive,” says Isakaso. Between July and October 2022, climate change related events again destroyed 4.5 million hectares of land in the state of Maharashtra alone.2 Despite the extreme conditions, many indigenous crop varieties survived. “Yes, the climate did affect even them [indigenous varieties], but it wasn’t a total loss,” he says. 

Isakaso says he was fortunate enough not to face such losses. For this, he credits his late father, Dawalso, who always insisted on retaining the traditional varieties. A Government school teacher who taught primary and upper-primary students, Isakaso retired in 2002 but never quit farming. Starting at the age of 25, he learned farming from his parents, who learned it from theirs. According to his grandparents’ stories, the Danawade family have cultivated the ancient wheat for over 150 years.

What makes emmer wheat so resilient?

First cultivated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent (middle-east), emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) is a hulled wheat with a strong outer husk enclosing the grain.3 This husk acts as a natural impenetrable fortress surrounding the grain, making emmer wheat resistant to pest attacks and rust disease.3 In addition, emmer can grow in less fertile soils and copes better in both colder and hotter weather conditions than common hybrid varieties.4 In the face of a changing climate, this is significant. Already, in 2022, India reported a 3% decline in wheat production because of the March heat waves, forcing the Indian Government to ban its exports and affecting several countries relying on this supply.5

Racing a changing climate

Isakaso stayed true to the resolution he made in the 1970s when he decided to preserve the traditional variety. However, his son, Irfan, 47, has been reducing the total acreage of land on which they cultivate emmer wheat. Of the 3.5 acres of land the Danawades own, last year, he cultivated it on half an acre and reduced it further to just a quarter acre this year.

The Emmer Wheat cultivated by Irfan this year. Because of the tremendous October rains, he was late by a month in sowing the crop, which so far hasn’t affected the growth of the crop.
The Emmer Wheat cultivated by Irfan this year. Because of the tremendous October rains, he was late by a month in sowing the crop, which so far hasn’t affected the growth of the crop. (Photo by author)

Irfan has been shifting from emmer wheat to sugarcane, which remains the most lucrative crop as there’s a regulated market for it, assuring a guaranteed income. This year, India produced over 500 million metric tonnes of sugarcane, becoming the highest sugar producer worldwide.8 The industry is now so large that it employs more than 50 million farmers, with many of their families also relying on sugarcane and the Indian sugar industry to support their livelihoods.9 However, any short-term financial gains come with losses for the environment and human health. Sugarcane is not just a water-guzzling crop using 1500-2000 litres of water for every kilogram of sugar produced, but it also requires tremendous amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Despite the rising popularity of sugarcane, India remains the second-highest wheat-producing country worldwide and reported 109.5 million metric tonnes of production in 2021-22.10,11 Today, emmer wheat forms less than 1% of total wheat in India, partly because it has a lower yield and more complex harvest than the hybrid alternative. Major varieties cultivated today include the ‘common wheat’ (Triticum aestivum) and durum wheat.12

Fighting back against fertilisers

Last year, on half an acre of land, Isakaso harvested roughly 500 kilograms of emmer wheat. If he had used a hybrid variety, he could have probably harvested at least 700 kilograms based on average yields from other farmers. What’s more, traditional wheat varieties take over five months to grow and harvest, while hybrid varieties take less than four, explains Isakaso. This drove farmers to adopt the modern varieties, which are far easier to cultivate and harvest. While these factors remain lucrative, they come at a tremendous cost. “It’s become impossible to cultivate the hybrid variety without the rampant use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides,” says Irfan.

To the left, traditional emmer wheat which is slightly sweeter. To the right, the hybrid variety.
To the left, traditional emmer wheat which is slightly sweeter. To the right, the hybrid variety. (Photo by author)

Moreover, to harvest the crops before another flood wreaks havoc, many farmers have indiscriminately increased the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Isakaso makes an interesting observation about how local farming methods have changed over the years. “When I started farming, we couldn’t find a single pesticide sprayer in the village. Now you’ll see two sprayers in every household,” he says. The rising sprayers signal a tale of devastation. To change this, he used basic economics to help Irfan understand the importance of emmer wheat. While the production is lower, the input cost is also much lower, almost half of the hybrid variety. On top of this, emmer also fetches around five times the market price when compared to the modern wheat varieties.

The use of these fertilisers is also becoming increasingly expensive.“From last year, the prices of chemical fertilisers have skyrocketed,” says Irfan, which has led to a major rise in the cost of production. In the Shirol region where he’s based, agriculture officer Swapnita Padalkar says that 9,402 hectares (23,232 acres) of land in the region were found to be saline in 2021. This was because of the excessive use of chemical fertilisers, large-scale sugarcane cultivation, improper irrigation practices, and rapid climatic fluctuations.

However, a decade back, this wasn’t the case. “When I started farming, for the first 15 years, I didn’t use any chemical fertiliser,” says Irfan.

“The climate has changed a lot now. You can see summer, winter and rain, all in a day. This is not good for farming, and the easy way out to save crops is resorting to chemical fertilisers and pesticides,” says Shanur, Isakaso’s wife. The rising use of fertilisers and pesticides is not unique to India. In 2020, pesticide consumption worldwide was 2.7 million metric tons, a massive 57% increase from 1990.13

In the short term, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides have helped farmers keep producing crops in the face of climate breakdown. But chemical inputs can only go so far. In 2022, October rains destroyed 2.8 million hectares of farmland in 33 districts of Maharashtra.2 For the Danawade family, and thousands of other farmers, the losses were devastating. “In half an acre of land, we were just able to cultivate 250 kilograms of groundnut (which should have been at least 550 kilograms),” says Irfan. But for him, choosing ancient varieties makes all the difference.

This is why, despite the rains making him a month late in sowing emmer wheat, he remains optimistic. “That’s the benefit of the indigenous varieties. They can survive climate change events and even the delay in cultivation.” Seeing the resilient properties of emmer wheat, Irfan is now looking for more traditional crops and is rethinking the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and hybrid varieties.

Along with Emmer Wheat, Irfan has also preserved indigenous flat green beans, which take about eight months to grow. “The traditional variety tastes much better than the modern ones,” he says.
Along with Emmer Wheat, Irfan has also preserved indigenous flat green beans, which take about eight months to grow. “The traditional variety tastes much better than the modern ones,” he says. (Photo by author)

Creating resilient and sustainable systems

Climate change is not the only threat to food production. Though less likely to hit the headlines, soil erosion seriously undermines food security. Worldwide, 33% of the Earth’s soils are degraded, and over 90% could be in the same state by 2050.14 And the village of Jambhali is no exception. Isakaso has noticed the decline in soil health in his village, attributing it to improper irrigation practices, mono-cropping, and rising climate change events. “Earlier, after harvesting a crop, we kept the farmland vacant for at least two months. Now we are cultivating throughout the year without a week’s break,” says Irfan.

Climate change and soil degradation are two sides of the same coin. Extreme weather events affect the health of the soil, and unhealthy soil can’t cope as well with climate extremes. As a result, even hybrid varieties are experiencing lower yields. The consequences of this drop in production are far-reaching, as many northern parts of India reported a significant fodder shortage for cattle.15 And as the cattle suffer, so do the people who rely upon them.

“Cattle remain the natural fertiliser industry for poor farmers like us,” says Isakaso. The emmer wheat stalks serve as nutritious fodder for the cattle. “The dung these cattle produce is then used as fertiliser, ensuring a sustainable cycle. The moment you shift to cash crops and overdo it, the entire ecosystem falls apart,” warns Vijay Jawandhiya, an activist and farmers’ leader based in Maharashtra. “Because of the rising fodder costs, many farmers are finding it difficult to afford the cattle,” he adds. Without cattle and the dung they produce, many local farmers are losing access to cheap organic fertilisers - only increasing their reliance on synthetic fertilisers to keep soils productive.

Emmer wheat provides a unique opportunity to reverse this trend. According to Isakaso, another major benefit is that emmer wheat doesn’t require chemical fertilisers and pesticides. But, while some raise concerns over the lower yields, Isakaso disagrees, asking “What will you produce if the entire land is destroyed by overuse of chemical fertilisers?”

Emmer wheat is highly nutritious for us humans too. Khapli has a higher protein content compared to modern varieties and is rich in antioxidant compounds that can help to reduce cardiovascular risk factors.16,4 Moreover, it has a historical significance. “Its kheer (wheat pudding) is eaten on special occasions and festivals,” says Isakaso, which has helped to a certain extent to draw the attention of the younger generation towards this crop. Its porridge and flatbread remain a staple diet of clay wrestlers even today.

Training the next generation

When they first rejected hybrid varieties, Shanur and Isakaso were laughed at. But their persistent efforts eventually paid off. Last year, more than ten farmers bought emmer wheat seeds from them to begin cultivating their own. This year, they sold over 50 kilograms of seeds. “The number is low, but a few years ago, none would come,” says Shanur. As the climate changes and the cost of inputs rises, ancient grains will make more economic sense.

Irfan wasn’t convinced by his father’s support for emmer wheat at first. But then he started calculating how many crops he had lost because of climate change, and his father’s choice made sense to him. “Slowly, people are realising the importance of emmer wheat,” he says. Irfan credits Isakaso for teaching him the importance of preserving the traditional variety. “While I regret abandoning several traditional varieties, I won’t stop cultivating emmer wheat,” he says.

Illustrations by Lucía Merlo

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