Alternative cereals can improve water use and nutrient supply in India
Humanity faces the grand challenge of feeding a growing, more affluent population in the coming decades while reducing the environmental burden of agriculture. Approaches that integrate food security and environmental goals offer promise for achieving a more sustainable global food system, yet little work has been done to link potential solutions with agricultural policies. Taking the case of cereal production in India, we use a process-based crop water model and government data on food production and nutrient content to assess the implications of various crop-shifting scenarios on consumptive water demand and nutrient production. We find that historical growth in wheat production during the rabi (non-monsoon) season has been the main driver of the country’s increased consumptive irrigation water demand and that rice is the least water-efficient cereal for the production of key nutrients, especially for iron, zinc, and fiber. By replacing rice areas in each district with the alternative cereal (maize, finger millet, pearl millet, or sorghum) with the lowest irrigation (blue) water footprint (WFP), we show that it is possible to reduce irrigation water demand by 33% and improve the production of protein (+1%), iron (+27%), and zinc (+13%) with only a modest reduction in calories. Replacing rice areas with the lowest total (rainfall + irrigation) WFP alternative cereal or the cereal with the highest nutritional yield (metric tons of protein per hectare or kilograms of iron per hectare) yielded similar benefits. By adopting a similar multidimensional framework, India and other nations can identify food security solutions that can achieve multiple sustainability goals simultaneously.
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