Replacing rice with other cereals can help India overcome freshwater stress – study

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While the boom in rice-wheat systems has vitally contributed to reducing hunger and malnutrition throughout India, these trends in production have been supported by ever-increasing agricultural inputs and extensive environmental consequences, particularly for freshwater resources, a study has said.

Many parts of the country now experience chronic water stress due to heavy-water extraction for irrigated agriculture and a weakening monsoon, while widespread nutrient deficiencies persist, said the study that appeared in the Science Advances journal.

“Because Indian diets generally derive a large fraction of nutrients from cereals, these mounting food security and environmental challenges make it increasingly clear that the rice-wheat status quo of the Indian food system requires critical examination and that solutions that integrate nutrition and the environmental impacts of food production can offer pathways toward healthier food baskets with less environmental burden,” said the authors of the study.

It said that the need for improved compatibility between food security and environmental stewardship is of considerable urgency in India.

India, the world’s second most populous country, has remained largely self-sufficient in terms of cereal production over the past 50 years, with rice (grown during the kharif/monsoon season) and wheat (grown during the rabi/winter season) as the flagship crops driving substantial increases in food supply.

However, the large inefficiencies present in food systems in terms of water use, demonstrate the possibility of planting crops with lower water requirements while also enhancing calorie and protein production.

“Other studies in central India have examined water stress, land use, nutrition, and climate sensitivity associated with cereal production and demonstrated that certain cereals can offer distinct benefits over rice along all of these dimensions. However, a national analysis of the potential nutritional and water use benefits of alternative cereals (that is, maize, millets, and sorghum) is still lacking for India,” the authors pointed out.

Nations are increasingly facing challenges of increasing food production while simultaneously minimising resource use and environmental impacts. This is certainly the case for India where historical trends in cereal production have contributed to widespread water stress and nutrient deficiency, the study said.

“Our study demonstrates that replacing rice with other cereals, for which local knowledge on their production and consumption already exists, can offer distinct benefits in terms of both reducing freshwater use and enhancing nutrient production,” the authors pointed out.

Uttara is a correspondent with Indoasiancommodities. You can write to her on uttara.malhotra@indoasiancommodities.in.

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