BLOG: Dried-up Solutions in India's Breadbasket

NPR's two-part series on the challenges facing India's Punjab region, the nation's breadbasket, offers some nice first-hand cultural color--the chatter of farmers meeting over tea, the ubiquity of cellphones and ring tones, the grind of an irrigation pump challenging falling water tables. But the report fell short on offering serious solutions to falling water tables and rising farmer debt, a shortfall noted by many of the online comments that came in from around the world.

First, irrigation and hydrology experts have pointed out for decades that grain farmers in this region could use water more efficiently. Not just by taking drastic measures, like growing millet or other less water-intensive crops in occasional years. But water pricing and incentives for more efficient irrigation systems are still an afterthought to subsidizing diesel fuel for groundwater pumps. Second, India has a long history of traditional solutions to water shortages, from rainwater harvesting tanks to nutritious, but drought tolerant crops such as millet and other less popular grains. As climate negotiators show more and more interest in paying farmers for locking carbon in soils, India's farmers could reap a double benefit--carbon payments and great water- and nutrient-holding capacity of organic matter enriched soils.

The history of the Green Revolution shows that increasing yields alone cannot eliminate hunger, especially when agricultural policy ignores the ability of farmers to find markets, the availability of agricultural inputs to the poorest farmers, and other barriers to boosting income among rural households. At a time when the number of hungry is increasing in much of the world--nearly 1 billion people are considered hungry globally--and when agricultural officials, farmers and international foundations are struggling to figure out how to help regions feed themselves, fighting to keep yields high can't be the only goal of agricultural policy.