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‘Study linking climate change and farmer suicides baseless’

Author: Sowmiya Ashok
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: August 26, 2017
URL:    http://indianexpress.com/article/india/nasheed-snubs-china-india-maldives-ties-over-2000-years-4813887/

The study calculated that “warming a single day by 1 degree Celsius during India’s agricultural growing season leads to roughly 65 suicides across the country, whenever that day’s temperature is above 20 degrees Celsius”. Warming a day by 5 degrees Celsius has five times that effect, it said.

A trio of professors have termed as “baseless” the claims of a recent study that links climate change and agricultural suicides, saying that the claims are a consequence of “uncritical use of data, bad assumptions, flawed analysis” and “unacceptable neglect” of the existing literature on global warming and Indian agriculture.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the United States of America by Tamma Carleton, researcher at the University of California in Berkeley. It found that temperatures during India’s main agricultural season have a “strong positive effect” on annual suicide rates.

The study calculated that “warming a single day by 1 degree Celsius during India’s agricultural growing season leads to roughly 65 suicides across the country, whenever that day’s temperature is above 20 degrees Celsius”. Warming a day by 5 degrees Celsius has five times that effect, it said.

The critique, written by the TISS School of Habitat Studies professor T Jayaraman and assistant professor Kamal Kumar Murari, and Indian Statistical Institute Economic Analysis Unit professor Madhura Swaminathan, stated that the paper is marked by “several serious errors” and as a result “the meaning of the correlation that the author claims to find between extreme temperatures and suicides is unclear”.

They said that they themselves conducted a detailed study of the impact of extreme temperatures on crop production in Karnataka. This, they said, was among several such studies conducted by other Indian and foreign authors and “no such study provides any corroborative evidence for the dramatic conclusions of this paper”.

Among the “serious errors” is the “incorrect use of suicide data,” the academics said. For instance, the “paper uses state-level data on suicides, data that includes both urban and rural suicides”. Also, the “author does not analyse individual crops but only considers a basket of such crops”.

They said that cotton, which is closely associated with farmer suicides wherever it is grown, “is a notable omission as are a host of other cash crops”. They pointed out that of the six crops pooled, rice is mainly a monsoon crop, wheat is a winter crop and sugarcane is a 12-18 month crop. “How can the July-September ‘growing season’ temperature explain changes in the combined yields of these crops?”

“The study considers temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius as extreme temperatures but the threshold in literature is above 32 degrees Celsius,” Swaminathan said. “Temperature ranges of 20 degrees to 29 degrees Celsius are known to be beneficial for crop growth.”

The study only considers extreme temperatures during the kharif season. “The rabi crop like wheat is in fact more sensitive to extreme temperatures,” she said. Despite the predominant wheat-growing season being rabi, “the paper includes wheat in its analysis but does not include the impact of rabi temperatures”.

Swaminathan told The Indian Express that climate change is a very serious issue and such studies trigger a “panic reaction”. She said that her co-author Jayaraman “has argued clearly that the climate variations experiences today should be separated from climate change. But the increasing intensity of climate variation is a window into the future.” The academics stated that even though the author refers to “robustness checks” of her results, they retain the “erroneous assumptions”. They have also submitted a formal comment on the study to PNAS.
 
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