Why India Needs to Ditch its Rice Dependency

India is one of world’s largest producers of rice. While that has created a substantial economic growth, new research highlights how it has also created significant hardships that India must now tackle.

The research, conducted by an international team of scientists including researchers from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, delves into two key commitments made by the Indian government:

  • reducing undernourishment in India
  • promoting sustainable water use

As the research notes, rice production on the scale currently seen across Asia, and specifically in India, means these promises are still not being met.

“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,” says Kyle Davis, lead author of the study. “That’s why we’re thinking of ways to better align food security and environmental goals.”

The researchers looked at India’s population and their current health issues. India, like other nations on the Asian continent, has seen a significant population boom. That can be good for a nation, so long as all its people are getting their basic needs met.

Unfortunately, India’s reliance on water-intensive cereal crops–like rice and wheat–means that many Indians are undernourished.

To put a figure on it, UNICEF estimates that20 percent of India’s children under age five suffer from wasting due to acute undernutrition. One key problem is anemia, while another is a severe shortage of water, something that is being made even worse as the population grows and the climate changes.

The researchers in thislatest study say that India’s reliance on rice and wheat may actually be deepening that problem. To understand why, the researchers looked at the six major grains grown in India and compared their yields,water use and nutritional value.

The researchers found that, despite rice being a staple product for India, it is actually the least water-efficient, if we look at it in terms of its nutritional content. Growing rice requires irrigation to flood the fields. Wheat, while requiring far less water than rice, also throws up issues relating to irrigation and management.

Which cereal grain offered a better outlook?

Which grain was idealdepended on which region the researchers looked at and whether the crops could be grown where there was dependable rainfall. However, in broad terms, the researchers believe that if India replaced rice with maize, finger millet or a few other similar grains, they could reduce water demand by a third.

What’s more, they could boost iron and zinc content in food by 27 percent and 13 percent respectively, which would be a significant plus for a region currently battling undernourishment.

There were trade-offs with this. Rice is a calorie-dense food, so cutting back on rice could reduce calorie yield per unit of land. In the West, calories are often seen as the enemy, but they are the basic blocks of our energy and for nations where food security is lacking, this would need to be looked at carefully.

The scientists note that it might mean more land will need to be used for crop growth, but so long as that land is not being flooded, that doesn’t have to be such an issue, providing it is managed carefully and efficiently. Also, scientists could provide ways to make other grains develop higher yields, which would largely eliminate this problem.

There are some factors that this analysis has not taken into account and, before they make any firm policy recommendations, the researchers are keen to explore this topic to ensure that they are on the right track. Such factors include:

  • individual grains’ impact on the climate
  • how much CO2 is produced

We know that rice paddies produce a comparatively high level of methane, which is known as a super insulating gas, so there could be further gains made by swapping rice for other cereals where possible. The research will have to explore which would be the right fit to suit all of India’s needs.

Some Indian states have started to diversify their crops precisely because of water shortages and other factors, so this news is unlikely to be a surprise. What the researchers believe will be key is strong leadership from the Indian government to back grains like millet and other more efficient crops.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

41 comments

Glennis W
Glennis W2 months ago

Great information scary Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W2 months ago

Hope they an solve their problems Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W2 months ago

Very worrying Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W2 months ago

Very interesting article Thank you for caring and sharing

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Caitlin L
Caitlin L2 months ago

Thanks for posting this

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heather g
heather g2 months ago

I hope they solve these problems.... How India manages to feed its huge population is a mystery to me.

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Danii P
Past Member 2 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Danii P
Past Member 2 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Danii P
Past Member 2 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Winn A
Winn A2 months ago

Noted

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