ROME, July 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Replacing rice with more nutritious, less thirsty cereals could help India reduce hunger and chronic water stress and improve nutrition, experts said.
Planting maize, finger millet, pearl millet or sorghum could reduce water demand by a third and increase iron and zinc production in the world's second most populous country, they said in a study published in the journal Science Advances.
Water in many parts of India is under strain from irrigation to produce rice, the least water-efficient cereal for the production of key nutrients.
The need to produce more nutritious cereals is urgent as India faces a "significant challenge" in having to feed approximately 394 million more people by 2050, the report said.
The researchers studied six major grains grown in India: rice, wheat, maize, sorghum, and pearl and finger millet. For each crop, they compared yield, water use, and nutritional values such as calories, protein, iron, and zinc.
"There are alternative cereals that are high in nutrients but in order to supply them, we need to produce more of them," said Ashwini Chhatre, associate professor at the Hyderabad-based Indian School of Business and a co-author of the study.
Maize, finger millet, pearl millet or sorghum are less harmful to the environment and already produced in India but in smaller numbers, Chhatre told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone, adding public investment could be channeled towards their production.
Ranked below North Korea in the 2017 Global Hunger Index, more than half of women in India are anaemic - a condition usually caused by a lack of iron.
Government data also shows about 39 percent of children suffer from chronic undernutrition and around 42.5 percent are underweight.
Some crops, like millets and sorghum, were part of the traditional diet, but the government's heavy subsidies for rice and wheat had influenced production and dietary choices away from these nutrient-rich alternatives, said the study.
India, the world's top rice exporter, is expected to produce 109 million metric tonnes of rice in 2018-19 from 43.5 million hectares of land, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
In Punjab state in India's north, the government is already looking to replace rice with maize due to water shortages, said B.M. Prasanna of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).
"Maize consumes at least 40 to 50 percent less water compared to rice," said Prasanna, Kenya-based director of CIMMYT's maize programme who was not involved in the study.
Rice consumption per person in some other parts of Asia, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korean has dropped between 41 percent to more than two-thirds in the past decades, data from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) shows.
Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert.
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