California drought – time to rethink forgotten grains

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Campaign for forgotten grain. Will California’s drought make farmers rethink what they should grow?

A very thirsty California, often criticized for its paradoxical water wastage, has been suffering from the worst drought for 500 years as some climate experts put it. California is also historically a powerful agricultural state, the second in water intensive rice production for instance. Two million tons of rice are produced annually, some being exported to the Middle-East and Asia. 4,000 litres of water are needed to produce one kilo of rice, which means that rice farms use over 8 trillion litres of water each year.

California’s water system supplies over 30 million people and 2.3 million hectares of irrigated agricultural lands. Water is limited yet initiatives to enforce different water users to save the “blue gold&rrdquo; have had limited impact. In drought years, irrigation needs as well as residential needs inflate seriously threatening the share usually dedicated to natural habitats. Currently there is a controversial debate to increase water resources for farms and cities and reduce the share for ecosystem needs.

So what will the situation be when California’s population rises to 50 million by 2020, without mentioning global warming? If nothing is done in terms of water saving and building up water conservation capacities, experts say that the gap between renewal of water resources and use will be 7.4km3 per year.

The challenges of becoming water efficient

Perhaps this terrible drought could trigger us to rethink the water debate and discuss what political choices and investments are needed for more sustainable water management in the long-run. Of course, agriculture the main user (around 80 percent of human needs) is seen by many as the biggest culprit, but agriculture brings value and jobs too. However farmers will have to shift towards a reasonable water usage though, in practice, it is never easy to promote a low water foot print agriculture.

A large part of water resources in California comes from groundwater, up to 60 percent of water resources in dry years. Farmers who have access to one of the 450 identified aquifers can in reality pump as much water as they want. Apart from pumping energy, water is free for them. And they can’t be fined for water wastage. Hiding being the constitutional right to privacy, many farmers would not allow water pumping data monitoring. People will start saving when wasting has economic implications. Without fair water pricing, it is difficult to promote water efficiency.

California is not the only water thirsty region that should rethink the crops it grows. In South India, the Karnataka state lacks water and is in conflict with neighbouring Tamil Nadu over the Kavery river water sharing agreement. However many farmers in Karnataka’s semi-arid districts grow paddy and sugar cane, the most water thirsty crops, because the government ensures there is a market for these commodities. In contrast, cultivation of traditional climate smart crops like millet is decreasing despite millets needing 3.5 times less water than rice to grow.

Overall, farmers grow the crops that are the most profitable for them, according to their environment, where economic dimensions (market and policies) play a stronger role than physical constraints (soil, climate). Water efficiency does not seem to be that important in farmers’ crop choices even in arid lands.

Think again about forgotten grain: giving water efficient dryland cereals a makeover

Could a crop’s water footprint really influence agricultural policies and consumer choices, and ultimately what farmers grow? Our food systems are more globalised and urban, and less diverse than decades ago. By 2050, it is estimated that 70 percent of the world population will live in cities. Unfortunately urbanites, the main target of the food industry, are keener on processed and fast foods and tend to abandon traditional food crops. A new study by CGIARGlobal Crop Diversity Trust and partners suggest that our reliance on fewer crops in the last decades increases the risks of diabetes and other food-related ailments, as well as the vulnerability of our food systems to droughts, pests, diseases and climate change.

In the last fifty years, millets and sorghum consumption have declined by 45 percent and 52 percent respectively while wheat, maize and soybean’s importance in our globalised diet grew significantly. That is an issue especially in drylands where pearl millet, other small millets and sorghum are often the only crops adapted to hot, dry climate and erratic rains. This is also a shame when these ancient grains are essential for the food security of millions of farming families in arid lands and are of high nutrition value. Millets for instance are nutritious, gluten free, rich in protein and iron but sadly misunderstood as only birdseed in the UK. When cooked in the right way millet has a toasted, nutty taste and could easily be a healthier alternative to couscous. From sushitabouleh and stir fries, to saladsrisottos, momos and muffins, there are many appealing ways to eat millet and feel good about yourself and the planet.

One relevant agricultural policy choice in arid countries like California would be to promote drought-tolerant crops instead of water intensive crops like rice. Why not replace rice by millet or other dryland cereal crops that are adapted to harsh environments and require much less water?

To do so, you need a market pull. This will require research and development to make these crops more competitive and appealing in domestic and international markets. ICRISAT, a member of the CGIAR consortium, is addressing the decline of dryland crops. The institute specializes in research on more nutritious, drought and pest tolerant and higher yielding dryland crop varieties, as well as better farm practices and ways of boosting policy support and market value. Other organisations such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation have been trying to reverse this decline through community projects to revive cultivation.

We the consumers are also essential in creating the market pull. By giving these forgotten foods a chance we will not only be saving water but also boosting farmer resilience and diversifying and improving our diet.

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