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Study: India Could See Big Changes with Simple Shift in Grains

FILE - Workers spread maize crop for drying at a wholesale grain market in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, June 12, 2012.

A recent study demonstrates that India can grow more nutritious food and decrease water use simply by switching the cereals farmers produce.

Currently, 7.3 billion people live on Earth, and the world population is expected to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050. Technological innovations have helped keep up with population growth in the past, but new research shows we might not need fancy tech for nutritional purposes.

Lead researcher Kyle Frankel Davis from Columbia University told VOA, "A lot of my research interests stem from trying to better align food security and environmental goals. And the Green Revolution is a good example of how we haven't been able to do that historically."

The Green Revolution is the name given to the development of high-yielding rice and wheat in the 1960s. These crops dramatically boosted food supplies in India and elsewhere; however, they required large amounts of water and fertilizer. With water supplies being strained and fertilizer pollution problems growing in many parts of the world, experts are encouraging farmers to consider less needy crops.

FILE - A farmer works in his millet field in the northern Indian city of Mathura, June 21, 2008.
FILE - A farmer works in his millet field in the northern Indian city of Mathura, June 21, 2008.

Davis and his co-authors wanted to test whether a shift from rice and wheat to maize, sorghum or millet could lead to better nutritional balance and less water use.

Working district by district, they used computer models to replace rice and wheat with other cereals that were grown in the district, but on a smaller scale. That ensured there was local agricultural knowledge about the alternative grain, and that the shift would be feasible.

The authors went through this process twice. One model chose grains that would increase the balance of nutritional content among calories, protein, iron and zinc, and the second model reduced irrigation demands. In both cases, replacing rice with another grain like sorghum, millet or maize led to better water efficiency and more nutritious output. Maize, in particular, performed generally well as a nutritious alterative, but was even better at reducing water use.

'Win-win situations'

The researchers' "small changes lead to big impacts," according to the Environmental Defense Fund's Kritee Kritee, who studies climate-smart agriculture. She added, "This study really brings attention to [alternative grains] and encourages both Indian scientists and international partners to do more research on the ground."

"I think I was a bit surprised with the magnitude of potential water savings that could occur," Davis acknowledged. "We estimated that water demand could be reduced by about one-third, which is a really substantial volume.

FILE - A man carries a sack filled with maize at a wholesale vegetable market in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, Aug. 14, 2012.
FILE - A man carries a sack filled with maize at a wholesale vegetable market in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, Aug. 14, 2012.

"I was also surprised that there are these win-win solutions sitting there," said Davis. "But it doesn't seem like they've been adopted historically and that has raised a lot of interesting questions as to why that hasn't been the case."


One potential explanation could be the governmental subsidies that are placed on some grains and not others. Davis thinks these state-level subsidies might explain the reliance on wheat and rice over other alternatives.

Currently, most grains are grown in Punjab and Haryana. The computer models indicated that shifting cereals would create less regional dependence, which could protect against local crop failure, although the models did not take into account soil fertility. That is a major reason those two districts are considered bread baskets.

Kritee agrees that while governmental policies are important, they aren't the only drivers of what crops farmers choose to cultivate.

"India has 100 million small farms less than two to five acres and people making less than $2 a day. Behavior is not driven just by government prices. Behavior is driven by small-scale farmers managing their livelihood, and government-supported prices are only one way you can try to tweak that behavior."

This study, published in Science Advances, is part of a larger research program to address multiple aspects of agriculture in India. The researchers are interested in observing how climate change, land use, and other factors affect farming practices, with the aim of increasing yield without damaging the environment.

Davis hopes to translate these research findings into policy, saying, "In developing these solutions for a specific place, it's also vital that researchers work closely with government officials and local experts to really tailor the solutions and the research questions to what's important to the people in that place of interest."

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    Sadie Witkowski

    Sadie Witkowski is a PhD candidate in Psychology at Northwestern University where she studies sleep and memory. She is also the 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow for Voice of America and is reporting this summer on science, medicine, and technology. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Texas in Austin.