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The Map to Zero Hunger: Mapping Cropping Systems for a Tailored Approach to Increasing Productivity and Incomes

In this blog post, Kiera Crowley, co-author of Food, Agriculture, and Nutrition in India 2020, discusses how she created a cropping systems map for the report and why the cropping systems approach is important for improving agricultural productivity in India.

Square plots of green farmland
Plots of farmland in Tamil Nadu, India. (Photo by Raj CC BY 2.0)

As presented in the TCI report, Food, Agriculture, and Nutrition in India 2020: Leveraging Agriculture to Achieve Zero Hunger (FAN 2020), agriculture plays an integral role in achieving improved nutrition outcomes in India. Agricultural productivity translates to increased incomes for agricultural households, which then enables those households to afford a more diverse and nutritious diet. It follows that in order to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG2), which calls for zero hunger and an end to all forms of malnutrition by 2030, India must focus its efforts on increasing the agricultural productivity and incomes of agricultural households, who represent the majority of the Indian population.

Increasing agricultural productivity and incomes from agriculture, however, is easier said than done—in large part because India has a vast array of cropping systems, all of which face different challenges. We use the term “cropping system” to characterize the crops grown in a given region—a difficult task, given that the types of crops grown vary both spatially, from farm to farm, and temporally, by growing season. India has three main growing seasons—kharif (usually the main season, harvested in autumn), rabi (usually the secondary season, harvested in spring), and zaid (usually the least common growing season, harvested in summer).

To make sense of these spatial and temporal variations, we set out to create a map to present in our report that could allow policymakers to tailor interventions by cropping system.

A map of India showing distinct cropping systems throughout the country
The cropping systems map from the FAN 2020 report shows the dominant crops grown in different regions of India.
Creating the Map

The first challenge in making the cropping systems map was to figure out how to define a cropping system. We wanted a definition that would accurately portray the dominant and, if significant, secondary crop, by area. This would be a relatively simple task using annual crop area data. However, such data would not allow us to identify areas where rice is the dominant crop in both the kharif and rabi seasons. For that, we needed seasonal data.

Using seasonal data from the ICRISAT-TCI District Level Database for Indian Agriculture and Allied Sectors (DLD), we calculated total cropped area per season and the percentage that each crop or crop group occupied within each season. Crop groups included pulses, coarse cereals, oilseeds, plantation crops, non-cotton fiber crops, spices, and vegetables. To account for annual variation, we averaged these percentages over the three most recent years of data (2015–14 to 2015–16). Then we were able to identify a dominant crop for each season as the crop or crop group with the highest average percentage of cropped area in that season over the 3-year time span.

This would have been enough if we wanted to simply map the dominant kharif crop and the dominant rabi crop for each district. However, the map produced with this method has so much variation, with over 30 defined cropping systems, that it is hard to see any trends.

After trying several variations of the mapping code, we decided to only show the rabi crop if it was a defining feature of a well-known cropping system—such as rice-wheat or rice-rice systems—or if all districts with a given dominant kharif crop had the same dominant rabi crop, as with the sugarcane–wheat systems.

We also wanted to show rice–fallow systems, as they are a defining system of eastern India. To do this, we used cropping intensity data, which we calculated from the same dataset and defined rice-fallow systems as districts where rice is the dominant crop, but the cropping intensity is below 1.22 (see cropping intensity map, below). Cropping intensity, at the district level, can be thought of as the average number of times that the fields in that district are sown during the year. It is calculated as the ratio of gross cropped area to the net cropped area (the total area sown during the year, with area sown more than once in a year counted only once).

The cropping systems approach to increasing productivity and incomes is an important and novel methodology in the realm of Indian policy.

For all other systems, we only included the overall dominant crop, which we identified as the crop that, during a single growing season, occupied the greatest share of the gross cropped area. Gross cropped area refers to the total area cropped in kharif, rabi, and zaid combined. In other words, an area is counted as many times as there are sowings in a year.

Using this method, we arrived at 12 cropping systems: rice-wheat; rice-rice; rice-fallow; rice-other; sugarcane-wheat; wheat; oilseed; cotton; coarse cereal; pulse; plantation; and maize systems.

Opportunities, By Cropping System, for Increasing Productivity and Incomes

Out of the 12 cropping systems identified in our map, the FAN 2020 report addresses productivity in the cropping systems of three major regions: the rice-wheat system of the Indo-Gangetic Plain; the rice-fallow, rice-rice, and rice-other systems in eastern India; and cotton and oilseed systems in central and western India. Finally, we discuss the potential for coarse cereal and pulse production to expand.

The rice-wheat system spans the eastern and western IGP, which have vastly different socio-economic and environmental conditions. In the western IGP, rice and wheat yields are among the highest in the country, but the intensive farming system is straining natural resources, and groundwater is running out. In the eastern IGP, rice and wheat yields have lagged behind due to poor investment in agricultural infrastructure and less favorable agroclimatic conditions.

A map of India showing levels of cropping intensity throughout the country
A map of cropping intensity from the FAN 2020 report shows the average number of times fields in a given region are sown throughout the year.

Both regions would benefit from shifting to less water-intensive crops and adopting more sustainable and water-conserving practices in the production of rice and wheat. The eastern region also requires further investment in infrastructure. In the western region, shifting to high-value crops could provide the level of income necessary to compete with current income from the procurement of rice and wheat, while also increasing the diversity of food available in the market.

In the rice-fallow regions, mainly in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, there is great potential to increase production and income by adding a crop during the rabi (winter) season, when thousands of hectares of fields currently lie fallow. Pulses and oilseeds would be ideal crops to add here, given that cultivation is possible with limited irrigation.

In the rice-rice systems of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, as in the western IGP, the focus must be on switching to crops and means of production that require less water, as well as to high-value crops.

In the cotton and oilseed systems of central India, yields are still far below potential. Agronomic strategies to increase yields of these crops must be pursued, as well as strategies to increase water-use efficiency to ensure future sustainability.

Across cropping systems, the opportunity exists for diversifying to pulses and coarse cereals, as these crops are high in nutritive value and resilient to climate stress. Yields and profits from these crops can be improved by strengthening the delivery systems for quality seeds, providing training on best practices, implementing crop insurance, and encouraging the formation of farmer producer organizations. Farmers growing coarse cereals and pulses can also benefit from rising consumer interest in these crops.

The Significance of the Cropping Systems Approach and the Need for Further Analysis

The cropping systems approach to increasing productivity and incomes is an important and novel methodology in the realm of Indian policy. While there have been government reports about how to increase productivity by crop, this is not the same as cropping systems and therefore does not address challenges specific to particular regions or consider the options within a given cropping system for diversification.

Classifying India’s cropping systems, as we have done in the FAN 2020 report, is the essential first step to preparing cropping system-specific recommendations. While we have made some of these recommendations in our report, much more work is needed, as each system has more complexity than we had the time or space to explore. We hope that our cropping systems map will serve as a template for future researchers and policymakers to explore what approaches will be best suited to each system to increase incomes and productivity, and, ultimately, nutrition outcomes.