Using satellite data to identify the causes of and potential solutions for yield gaps in India's Wheat Belt

Food security will be increasingly challenged by climate change, natural resource degradation, and population growth. Wheat yields, in particular, have already stagnated in many regions and will be further affected by warming temperatures. Despite these challenges, wheat yields can be increased by improving management practices in regions with existing yield gaps. To identify the magnitude and causes of current yield gaps in India, one of the largest wheat producers globally, we produced 30 meter resolution yield maps from 2001 to 2015 across the Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP), the nation's main wheat belt. Yield maps were derived using a new method that translates satellite vegetation indices to yield estimates using crop model simulations, bypassing the need for ground calibration data. This is one of the first attempts to apply this method to a smallholder agriculture system, where ground calibration data are rarely available. We find that yields can be increased by 11% on average and up to 32% in the eastern IGP by improving management to current best practices within a given district. Additionally, if current best practices from the highest-yielding state of Punjab are implemented in the eastern IGP, yields could increase by almost 110%. Considering the factors that most influence yields, later sow dates and warmer temperatures are most associated with low yields across the IGP. This suggests that strategies to reduce the negative effects of heat stress, like earlier sowing and planting heat-tolerant wheat varieties, are critical to increasing wheat yields in this globally-important agricultural region.