Swapping Crops To Ensure Food Security In India

Replacing rice and wheat with crops such as maize, finger millet, pearl millet or sorghum could help India save water and provide its people with more nutritious food.

AsianScientist (Jul. 20, 2018) – According to a study published in Science Advances, India can save water and improve the nutritional status of its citizens by planting maize, finger millet, pearl millet or sorghum instead of rice and wheat.

India will need to feed approximately 394 million more people by 2050. Nutrient deficiencies are already widespread in India today—30 percent or more are anemic—and many regions are chronically water-stressed. Making matters worse, evidence suggests that monsoons are delivering less rainfall than they used to.

Starting in the 1960s, a boom in rice and wheat production helped reduce hunger throughout India. Unfortunately, this green revolution also took a toll on the environment, increasing demands on the water supply, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from the use of fertilizers.

In the present study, the researchers sought to identify alternative agricultural approaches that may reduce undernourishment and improve nutrition, as well as promote sustainable water use in India.

“If we continue to go the route of rice and wheat, with unsustainable resource use and increasing climate variability, it’s unclear how long we could keep that practice up,” said Dr. Kyle Davis, at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and lead author on the study. “That’s why we’re thinking of ways to better align food security and environmental goals.”

Davis and his colleagues studied six major grains currently grown in India: rice, wheat, maize, sorghum, pearl millet and finger millet. For each crop, they compared yield, water use and nutritional values such as calories, protein, iron and zinc. They found that rice is the least water-efficient cereal when it comes to producing nutrients, and that wheat has been the main driver of increasing irrigation stresses.

The potential benefits of replacing rice with alternative crops varied widely between different regions, depending on how much the crops could rely on rainfall instead of irrigation. But overall, the researchers found that replacing rice with maize, finger millet, pearl millet or sorghum could reduce irrigation water demand by 33 percent, while improving production of iron by 27 percent and zinc by 13 percent.

In some regions, the researchers observed a tradeoff between water and land use efficiency, but Davis thinks that with more research, the alternative crops could develop higher yields as well.

While the findings are promising, the authors stopped short of making policy recommendations. They would like to add other variables into their analysis, including greenhouse gas emissions, climate sensitivity and how much labor and money it takes to grow each crop. In addition, the team wants to study Indian food preferences to evaluate whether people would be willing to incorporate more of these alternative cereals into their diets.

“There are places around India where these crops continue to be consumed in pretty large amounts… so it’s still within the cultural memory,” said Davis.

India’s state-run Public Distribution System (PDS) could be an ally in influencing consumer preferences. PDS currently subsidizes rice and wheat to support smallholder farmers and low-income households. Those subsidies have given incentives to farmers and consumers to plant and buy those crops, but future policies could help to encourage the use of the more nutritious, water-saving cereals like millet and sorghum.

Momentum is growing in support of alternative grains. Some Indian states are have already started pilot programs to grow more of these crops, and the Indian government is calling 2018 the ‘Year of Millets.’

“If the government is able to get people more interested in eating millets, the market will organically respond to that,” said Davis. “If you have more demand, then people will pay a better price for it, and farmers will be more willing to plant it.”

The article can be found at: Davis et al. (2017) Alternative Cereals Can Improve Water Use and Nutrient Supply in India.


Source: Columbia University; Photo: Kevin Krajick.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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