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The limits of increasing food production with irrigation in India


Growing populations and dietary shifts to include higher proportions of meat are projected to double global food demand by 2050. Previous global studies have proposed and evaluated possible solutions by closing agricultural yield gaps, defined as the difference between current and potential crop yields. We compliment previous studies by developing a method for more accurately calculating potential changes in cereal grain production under different irrigation scenarios, explicitly incorporating yield differences associated with different sources of irrigation. Irrigating with groundwater often leads to higher crop yields than irrigating with surface water because of the greater facility to tailor both the volumes of water and the timing of application. Two possible scenarios for increasing production in India are examined, the first where all non-irrigated fields are irrigated proportionally to the State-specific distribution of irrigation sources, and the second where all non-irrigated fields are irrigated with groundwater: Rice production increases by 14 and 25 % in scenarios 1 and 2 respectively, but wheat production increases by only 3 % in both scenarios. Increased irrigation water consumption from irrigating fields that are currently non-irrigated is estimated at 31 % for rice and 3 % for wheat using the Global Crop Water Model. A third scenario estimates the potential loss in production without the use of irrigation: rice would be 75 % and wheat 51 % of current production. Our methodology and results can help policy makers estimate the current and potential contribution of irrigation sources to agricultural production and food security in India and can with facility be applied elsewhere.

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The data for this paper were compiled from, and compilations and calculations are freely available from the authors upon request.

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Correspondence to Mikhail Smilovic.

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Smilovic, M., Gleeson, T. & Siebert, S. The limits of increasing food production with irrigation in India. Food Sec. 7, 835–856 (2015).

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  • Irrigation
  • Agriculture
  • India
  • Wheat
  • Rice
  • Food security