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The farmer protests near Delhi have brought renewed attention to the agricultural practices of northern India, groundwater use in particular. A new study finds that states where groundwater reserves are at critical levels, such as Punjab, form the major source of cereals for around 76% of India’s population. This puts the country’s food supply in a vulnerable position.

Francesca Harris of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and other co-authors look at the inter-state trade of five cereals—rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum—in 2011-12. The majority of this trade (58%) happens through the public distribution system, and the northern region is responsible for 61% of exports to other states.

The trade between states is inefficient in its use of groundwater when seen from a national perspective. As many as 27 states use less groundwater to grow a tonne of crop than the states they import from do to produce the same tonne. This implies a net loss of groundwater. On the whole, 2 cubic kilometres are lost every year—this is around 2% of the total groundwater used in India to produce cereals.

One reason for groundwater depletion is the move by many farmers to also grow crops in the dry season, so that they don’t have to depend on unreliable rainfall in the rainy season.

The authors suggest farming practices should change to ensure the availability of cereals in the future. One proposal is to shift away from cereals such as rice and wheat, which overuse water, to sorghum and millet, which need less water, are more drought-resistant and more nutritious.

Another idea is to diversify where cereal is produced in India by, for example, providing agricultural subsidies, so that power gets cheaper and irrigation easier, and regions such as eastern India are able to produce more.

Also read: Trading water: virtual water flows through interstate cereal trade in India

(Snap Fact features new and interesting reads from the world of research)


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