DM Madappa has been watching the falling water levels in the Kabini reservoir in Mysuru this summer. Even as the state government stopped releasing water into irrigation channels to ensure drinking water supply over a long and severe summer, the farmer saw water in borewells in Heggadadevana taluk where he lives plunge.

Madappa is used to growing rice, sugarcane, bananas, ragi and tobacco on his land but of late the farmer has been part of an agricultural experiment. He has been growing chia, a Mexican herb whose nutrionally dense seeds are becoming a popular food around the world. Madappa and other farmers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu got the seeds from the Central Food Technological Research Institute two years ago.

“Chia can survive drought because by nature that plant grows in very less water areas,” said Malathi Srinivasan, principal scientist at the institute. “It needs water in the beginning stages of its growth for a few days continuously and then maybe only once a week so this is okay for areas where there is not much water to irrigate.”

“We need to put as much water for chia as we put for ragi,” said Madappa from experience, confirming that once the plants start flowing they need to be watered only once a week, much less than the requirement for rice and sugarcane.

Developing chia for India

The food research institute has developed two varieties of chia for India farmers that are high-yielding and easily marketable. In October 2014, the institute distributed some seeds for free among farmers along with the information about the crop. “We decided that we would just give them the seed and leave it up to them to see if they wanted to grow it. The farmers that we are in touch with farmers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu who within three months have for very good yield and good harvest,” said Srinivasan.

In the middle of a summer when temperature records are being broken and a third of the country has been affected by drought, farmers and agricultural scientists are anticipating large-scale crop failures. In Karnataka, farmers are upset kharif crop losses in consecutive years and the lack of government compensation. In West Bengal and Odisha, the threat of the boro paddy rabi crop failing has become real with high temperatures possibly disrupting pollination of the crop.

Drought-proofing agriculture

Cultivating chia is only one of many experiments to make agriculture, food security and far security drought-proof. The MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, for instance, has been working on creating a drought-resistant variety of rice by engineering genes of the shrub Prosopis juliflora into the staple grain. The genes that help the hardy shrub withstand salinity and drought could allow rice to grow in arid conditions.

The other method farmers are experimenting with is to go back to millets. In parched Marathwada, farmers groups are advocating shunning water-intensive sugarcane for jowar and bajra in combination with lentils and legumes. Agricultural scientists have estimated that millet production fell 65 percent since the 1970s and say that a return to the low or no irrigation crops is the need of the hour.

In Heggadadevana taluk, Madappa is hedging his bets by continuing to grow the traditional ragi millet but carrying on with his experiment with chia. “We can sell ragi, we can eat ragi,” he said. “We can grow get a quintal of ragi from 1 acre and sell it for Rs 2000. Even if we get 3 quintals of chia from 1 acre and we can get Rs 50,000 but there has to be better marketing.”