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Winter drought threatens China wheat production

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Urbanisation in agricultural plains, visible from the flight path close to Beijing. Photo: Rahul Goswami

Urbanisation in agricultural plains, visible from the flight path close to Beijing. Photo: Rahul Goswami

The FAO has just released a special briefing on wheat production in China, through its Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS). “A severe winter drought in the North China Plain may put wheat production at risk,” said the FAO. “Substantially below-normal rainfall since October 2010 in the North China Plain, the country’s main winter wheat producing area, puts at risk the winter wheat crop to be harvested later in the month of June.”

Low precipitation resulting in diminished snow cover has reduced the protection of dormant wheat plants against frost kill temperatures (usually below -18°C) during winter months from December to February. Low precipitation and thin snow cover have also jeopardized the soil moisture availability for the post-dormant growing period. Thus, the ongoing drought is potentially a serious problem.

FAO China drought map showing cumulative rainfall and deficit in the wheat growing region.

FAO China drought map showing cumulative rainfall and deficit in the wheat growing region.

FAO’s GIEWS said that the main affected provinces include Shandong, Jiangsu, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi, which together represent about 60% of the area planted and two-thirds of the national wheat production. According to official estimates some 5.16 million hectares out of the total of about 14 million hectares under winter wheat may have been affected in these provinces. The drought has reportedly affected some 2.57 million people and 2.79 million livestock due to the shortages of drinking water.

So far there have been some positive developments, such as the relatively mild temperatures, particularly the absence of frost kill temperatures, and the lower than average sub-zero temperature days. This combined with increased supplementary irrigation made available by the Government is likely to compensate to some extent the negative impact of low snow fall and low moisture availability. However, adverse weather, particularly extreme cold temperatures could still devastate yields. The Government has allocated some USD 15 billion to support farmers’ incomes and subsidize the costs of diesel, fertiliser and pesticide.

This drought in north China seems to be putting further pressure on wheat prices, said FAO, which have been rising rapidly in the last few months. In January 2011 the national average retail price of wheat flour rose by more than 8% compared to two months earlier and stood at 16% higher than a year earlier. Although the current winter drought has, so far, not affected winter wheat productivity, the situation could become critical if a spring drought follows the winter one and/or the temperatures in February fall below normal.

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