Farmers in eastern India could increase yield by planting wheat earlier, helping them to ensure food security and farm profitability as the planet warms, according to a study.
The researchers at the Cornell University, US, noted that adjusting the sowing dates for wheat will increase untapped potential production of eastern India by 69 per cent.
The team built dense data sets in collaboration with colleagues from the Indian Agricultural Research Council, allowing them to unravel complex farm realities through big data analytics, and to determine what agricultural management practices really matter in smallholder systems.
"This process has confirmed that planting dates are the foundation for climate resilience and productivity outcomes in the dominant rice-wheat cropping systems in the eastern sector in India," said Andrew McDonald, an associate professor at Cornell University.
The study, published recently in the journal Nature Food, found that farmers in eastern India could increase yield by planting wheat earlier -- avoiding heat stress as the crop matures -- and quantified the potential gains in yields and farm revenues for the region.
The researchers also found that the intervention would not negatively impact rice productivity, a key consideration for farmers.
Rice alternates with wheat on the cropping calendar, with many farmers growing rice in the wet season and wheat in the dry season.
The study also provides new recommendations for rice sowing dates and types of cultivars, to accommodate the earlier sowing of wheat.
"Taking a cropping systems approach and understanding how things cascade and interlink informs our research approach and is reflected in the recommendations that emerged from this analysis. Climate resilient wheat starts with rice," said McDonald. The research is the result of years of collaboration with international groups and government agencies in India, which have identified the Eastern Ganges Plain as the area with the most potential growth in production.
The region will become essential, McDonald said, as the demand for wheat grows, and climate change makes production more difficult and unpredictable.
This year, record heat waves in March and April and food shortages caused by the war in Ukraine -- both of which prompted India's government to instate a ban on wheat exports -- have highlighted the need for increased yields and more sustainable farming practices.
"In the bigger sense, this research is timely because the hazards of climate change aren't just a hypothetical," McDonald said.
"Many of these areas are stress-prone environments, and extreme weather already constrains productivity. Identifying pragmatic strategies that help farmers navigate current extremes will establish a sound foundation for adapting to progressive climate change," he said.
The researchers noted that poverty is endemic in the Eastern Ganges Plain, and the region is dominated by small landholders, with varying practices and access to resources.
The breadth and specificity of the data collected and analysed in the study -- including field and household survey data, satellite data, and dynamic crop simulations -- allowed researchers to understand regional small farms' challenges and the barriers to change.
"At the end of the day, none of this matters unless farmers opt in," McDonald said. "There's a spatial dimension and a household dimension to opportunity. If we can target approaches accordingly, then we hope to position farmers to make management changes that will benefit the entire food system," he added.