get ready for a water-scarce future

In India’s vast rice-wheat cropping rotations, delivering water and fertilizer by the drop through buried tubes, together with conservation agriculture methods, can boost farmers’ profits by nearly a third and save 70% of the water typically used in flood irrigation.

As hotter weather, droughts, and depleting aquifers threaten food crop yields in South Asia, scientists have successfully tested a greener and more profitable way for India’s farmers to manage irrigated rice-wheat rotations.

Based on two years of field trials comparing innovative versus established practices, the best system for the rice-wheat rotation turned out to feature underground drip irrigation with fertilizer in the water, or ‘fertigation,’ as well as conservation agriculture practices — such as sowing both crops without tillage, keeping a crop residue mulch on the soil, and growing rice without flooding.

“A suite of these methods raised overall farm profitability by nearly 30%, while requiring 70% less irrigation water than the conventional approaches of intensive soil preparation for rice and wheat, flood irrigation, and growing rice in puddled paddies,” said M.L. Jat, a cropping systems agronomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-author of a 2019 Nature Scientific Reports article on the study.

Variants of the rice-wheat rotation are practiced on about 13.5 million hectares in South Asia, sustaining hundreds of millions of people but also draining water reserves, generating greenhouse gases, and churning out deadly smoke  from farmers’ custom of burning crop residues.

“Fertigation in our study reduced nitrogen fertilizer needs by 20% while increasing crop yields,” explained Harminder S. Sidhu, a principal research engineer at the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and co-author of the Nature Scientific Reports paper. “In medium textured soils, non-flooded rice yielded about 14% less than flooded rice, but the total system productivity of the rice-wheat rotation was higher and growing rice-wheat with fertigation saved labor, time, water, and energy — all of which means costs savings for farmers,” Sidhu explained. “It can also help reduce yearly paddy rice emissions of methane — a greenhouse gas with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide — which are as high as 4.9 million tons in South Asia.”

Retaining crop residues as mulch, instead of burning them, improves long-term soil health and crop yields, saves water and mitigates extreme pollution in cities such as New Delhi, according to Sidhu.

Given the mounting challenges in northwest India for flooded rice production — including depletion of water tables, soils being degraded from puddling, and the shortage of labor — researchers and policymakers are exploring more sustainable alternatives. Maize, which is grown elsewhere in India and imported to the northwest to feed poultry, offers an option.

In this study, when maize was substituted for rice in rotation with wheat under sub-surface drip fertigation and the conservation agriculture suite of practices, the result was 20% higher system productivity, 49% greater farmer profits, and 85% savings in irrigation water, over the conventional rice-wheat system. “There is also space for quick-growing legumes in our system, adding to profits and nutrition,” said P.C. Sharma, Director of the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute (CSSRI) and co-author of the Nature Scientific Reports paper.

National and state policies in India support practices that save water and avoid residue burning, as well as promoting technologies such as sub-surface drip irrigation systems, said Balwinder Singh Sidhu, Commissioner of Agriculture in the Government of Punjab.

Partners and funders

Funding was provided by the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the Government of Punjab, India. We acknowledge the CGIAR Fund Council, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Irish Aid, the European Union, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, USAID, and Thailand for their funding to CCAFS. The basic infrastructure for the study provided by ICAR’s Central Soil Salinity Research Institute (CSSRI) is thankfully acknowledged. BISA and CIMMYT field staff in Karnal, Haryana state, and Ludhiana, Punjab state, greatly contributed to the research.

© 2020 International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
We would like to thank all funders who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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Ricardo Ampudia, Lone Badstue, Hans Braun, Johanna Braun, José Juan Caballero Flores, Denise Costich, Susanne Dreisigacker, Andrea Gardeazabal Monsalue, Elias Garcia, Bram Govaerts, Filippo Guzzon, Jesús Herrera, M.L. Jat, Victor Kommerell, Timothy J. Krupnik, Jean-Flavien Le Besque, Joshua Masinde, Terence Molnar, Dina Najjar, Natalia Palacios, Thomas Payne, Kevin Pixley, B.M. Prasanna, Michael Quinn, Rajiv Kumar Sharma, H.S. Sidhu, José Luis Torres, Martha Wilcox, MAIZE Independent Steering Committee (ISC), WHEAT Independent Steering Committee (ISC)
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Correct citation
CIMMYT. 2020. Seeds of change. CIMMYT Annual Report 2019. CDMX, Mexico: CIMMYT.
AGROVOC descriptors:
Maize; Wheat; Plant breeding; Genetic resources; Innovation adoption; Plant biotechnology; Seed production; Food security; Sustainability; Research policies; Economic analysis; Cropping systems; Agricultural research; Organization of research; Developing countries. Additional Keywords: CIMMYT. AGRIS category codes: A50 Agricultural Research; A01 Agriculture– General Aspects. Dewey decimal classification: 630

© International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), 2020. All rights reserved. The designations employed in the presentation of materials in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of CIMMYT or its contributory organizations concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city, or area, or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. CIMMYT encourages fair use of this material. Proper citation is requested.


Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research
Colombian Agricultural Research Corporation (Corporación Colombiana de Investigación Agropecuaria)
Agricultural Transformation Agency
Borlaug Institute in South Asia
Breeding Advanced Programming Interface
CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security
International Center for Tropical Agriculture
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
CGIAR Research Program
Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia
Central Soil Salinity Research Institute
Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research
CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform
Farm Mechanization and Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Intensification
Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations
Indian Council of Agricultural Research
International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas
International Food Policy Research Institute
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
International Institute for Tropical Agriculture
Mexico's National Forestry, Crops and Livestock Research Institute (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias)
International Rice Research Institute
CGIAR Research Program on Maize
Middle East and North Africa
Millennium Development Goals
Open Data Kit
Open-pollinated variety
Polyethylene terephthalate
CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets
Research and Development
Mexico's Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development (Secretaría de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural)
Sustainable Development Goals
Sustainable Development Solutions Network
Straw Management System
Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa
Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics
United Nations
United States Agency for International Development
CGIAR Research Program on Wheat

Sustainable Development Goals

On September 24, 2013, the newly formed United Nations (UN) High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development held its first meeting. At the Rio+20 Conference, Member States also agreed to launch a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were to build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were established in 2000 and expired in 2015.

Of the 17 individual goals, 10 relate directly to CGIAR activities and to CIMMYT’s mandate. The SDGs have set the pathway for the next 15 years of agricultural, social, and economic development. Likewise, CGIAR has transformed its approach to ensure that its work aligns with the ambitious goals.

CIMMYT, through its research for development activities, is working toward a world free of poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation. CIMMYT and CGIAR efforts help bring the world closer to reaching the goals, such as the empowerment of women, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and the improvement of health and nutrition for the world’s poorest people.

CIMMYT’s work contributes to the following SDGs:


CIMMYT — the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center — is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.

For more information, visit www.cimmyt.org.