Climate-resilient wheat farming for food security in South asia

The use of resource-conserving practices like zero-tillage can improve livelihoods through efficient and sustainable farming.

With an average of just over 2.1 tons per hectare, compared to 4.5 tons in Punjab, wheat yields in the eastern Indian state of Bihar are the lowest in the Indo-Gangetic Plains and the state imports more than 800,000 tons of wheat each year to feed its expanding population. But according to a study published in 2015 by the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA), a practice known as zero-tillage – the direct sowing of seed into unplowed soil and the residues of previous crops – may be able to close the gap between wheat production and consumption.

“Enhancing the productivity of rice-wheat cropping in South Asia’s Indo-Gangetic Plains is essential to ensure food security for the region, which is home to more than 20 percent of the world’s population,” said Andrew McDonald, principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and South Asia team leader for sustainable intensification. The eastern Indo-Gangetic Plains are characterized by pervasive poverty and high population density.

The study stated that Bihari farmers who used zero-tillage produced 19 percent more wheat per hectare. Combined with the significant savings in fuel costs by not plowing, the total economic benefit for zero-tillage users amounted to 6 percent of their annual household income.

“The positive effect of zero-tillage appears to be greater in low-productivity areas such as Bihar than in high-output zones like, for instance, Punjab State,” said CIMMYT senior agricultural economist Alwin Keil and first author of the study.

Photo: Vinaynath Reddy/CIMMYT

Most smallholders in eastern India cannot afford the specialized seeder needed for zero-tillage, according to Keil. Thus, widespread adoption of the practice depends on an expanded network of entrepreneurs who have the seeder and hire out their services to sow wheat.

“In Bihar and the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, the number of zero-tillage service providers went from only 17 in 2012 to more than 1,900 in 2015,” he said.

The region’s farmers must also contend with high temperatures during wheat’s grain-filling stage, which can reduce yields by more than 50 percent, McDonald explained. With zero-tillage, wheat farmers can plant earlier so their crop matures before the spring heat.

According to a study published by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), zero-tilled wheat also saves water by better capturing rainfall, reducing evaporation and lessening the need to irrigate before sowing.

“Large-scale adoption of zero tillage for wheat saves farmers money by reducing tractor and fuel costs, explained McDonald. “It also improves soil and water quality, suppresses weeds, and can put Bihar on track to self-sufficiency in wheat.”

These results were achieved through working partnerships with the CGIAR’s International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI); as well as national research and extension systems, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) of India’s Department of Agricultural Research and Education; and private companies and farmers. CSISA is funded by key donors, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

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