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For health and planet, Indian dietary habits must change

Changes in consumer eating habits is key in achieving nutritional security and environmental sustainability. Government policies and industrial innovations should facilitate it.


August 13, 2021 6:53:28 pm
dietary habits, india sustainable development goals, India SDGs, Indian agriculture sector, Indian food sector, Indian express news, Indian expressThe food sector in India is highly inefficient as it engages over 50 per cent of the national workforce but contributes a mere 17 per cent to the national gross value added in 2017, reflecting huge redundancy. (Representational)

Written by Abhishek Chaudhary

On behalf of the Government of India, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare has given its consent for India’s participation in the upcoming United Nations’ Food Systems Summit that aims to deliver progress on all 17 of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) through a food systems approach. The term ‘Food system’ refers to all activities associated with food from its production, processing, transportation, and consumption. Transforming our food systems is among the most powerful and efficient ways to make progress towards all 17 SDGs because the food systems are interlinked to all major global challenges such as poverty, hunger, climate change, biodiversity loss and human well-being.

The food sector in India is highly inefficient as it engages over 50 per cent of the national workforce but contributes a mere 17 per cent to the national gross value added in 2017, reflecting huge redundancy. Almost half of the Indian farmers are small and marginal landholders (owning < 2 hectares) and many live below the poverty line or with stagnant incomes. Moreover, the Indian agriculture sector has massive environmental impacts. Crop irrigation accounts for 90 per cent of the country’s freshwater use, leaving groundwater reserves depleted and resulting in acute drinking water shortages every year. Over half of India’s ice-free land is devoted to agriculture, encroaching on the natural habitat of its biodiversity and threatening thousands of species with extinction. Fertilisers, pesticides, diesel use, and other farm inputs emit large amounts of greenhouse gases causing climate change and contribute to ground and river water pollution while crop residue burning results in air pollution episodes every year. These environmental damages trigger human health problems which in turn cascades into a net loss of the national economy.

Despite all these economic and environmental costs to provide food to its population, India remains one of the most malnourished countries in the world suffering from a triple burden of hunger (undernutrition or calorie deficiency), overnutrition (overweight, obesity due to excessive caloric intake), and hidden hunger (micronutrient deficiency, i.e., deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals). Almost every third child under the age of 5 years in India is undernourished with 36 per cent underweight, 38 per cent stunted (short height for age), and 21 per cent wasted (low weight for height). The number of stunted children in India accounts for almost one-third of the world’s cases. This coincides with a high prevalence of overweight, obesity, and concomitant non-communicable diseases (NCDs) with an estimated 61 per cent of deaths in India attributable to NCDs in 2017 and almost 20 per cent of the population suffering from overweight or obesity.

In addition, almost two-thirds of the Indian population suffers from a deficiency of one or more micronutrients necessary for the healthy functioning of the mind, body, and immune system. In terms of individual nutrients, for both rural and urban areas, the current intake of 11 out of 24 essential micronutrients (fibre, iron, niacin, potassium, riboflavin, thiamin, vitamin A, vitamin E, zinc, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and pantothenic acid) is below the recommended levels for almost all Indian states and Union Territories. The average diets in many states do not meet the daily requirements of calcium and vitamin B12. While affordability is the main reason for nutritionally inadequate diet for many people, even the households with sufficient income to afford healthy diets are deficient in micronutrients due to their everyday food choices and consumption behaviour.

The good news is that recent scientific studies have derived sustainable diets at the national and state level for India which, if adopted, will ensure both nutritional security and environmental sustainability. To shift to a sustainable diet, people in India on average would need to increase the vegetable intake by 2 times that of current levels; increase the fruit, pulses, and other coarse grains (e.g., millet, sorghum, or maize) intake by 4–5 times, and nuts intake by over 10 times. The intake of oils, rice, wheat and sugar needs to be reduced substantially from current levels in most states. Sustainable diets were derived by replacing nutrient-poor and high-environmental-footprint foods with nutrient-dense and low-footprint foods.

For example, the carbon emissions, freshwater use, nitrogen, and phosphorus fertiliser application is often higher during the production of popular staple cereals rice and wheat than coarse cereals such as millet (bajra), ragi, sorghum (jowar), oats, barley, or maize. However, the micronutrient content per unit weight is higher in the coarse cereals than wheat and rice. Hence, replacing rice and wheat with these coarse cereals in our diet can create win-win scenarios for nutrition and environmental outcomes at the national level. Replacing junk fast food or snacks high in bad nutrients such as sugar, sodium, saturated fats with fruits and vegetables will also improve the nutritional quality of daily diets.

The government and industry have an important role in facilitating such a dietary transition and of late there are some positive signs here too. For example, the Indian government declaring 2018 as National Year of Millets is an excellent example of policy to raise awareness and promote the production and consumption of sustainable food items. More of such fiscal interventions by government are needed to discourage the production of foods that are low in nutrition and high in environmental impact while ensuring that farmers’ incomes do not go down and the nutritious food is available at affordable prices to people. Other measures would be — improvements in storage and logistics to minimise food losses, expanding micronutrient supplementation and food fortification programs, including nutrient dense foods in subsidised public distribution system (PDS). Breaking down silos across ministries and following an integrated approach is the way to go for the government.
The nascent but growing AgriTech industry of India has an opportunity to complement the Indian government’s efforts with innovative farming and food supply chain solutions that benefit the farmers through improvements in production efficiency and ensure last mile distribution of healthy foods. Such a paradigm shift towards sustainable dietary habits will also drive food companies to innovate processing and product formulations that do not compromise the taste while improving the nutritional profile of foods. For example, rather than using 100 per cent refined wheat (maida) or rice flour, the coarse cereals or lentil flour can be mixed in appropriate proportions with wheat flour to make biscuits, noodles, cakes, bread, cookies, porridges.

It’s high time Indian consumers sensitise themselves about the dire state of public health, nutrition and environment in the country and create a demand for sustainable food items. Changing our food habits is not easy but then no pain, no gain.

The writer is an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur and the head of the Sustainability Data Analytics Lab. Views are personal.

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