For health and the planet, Indian eating habits must change.
Changes in consumer eating habits are essential to achieve nutritional security and environmental sustainability. Government policies and industrial innovations should make the task easier. The food sector in India is highly inefficient as it employs more than 50 percent of the national workforce, but contributes only 17 percent of the national gross value added in 2017.
The Indian government will send a representation from its Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare to the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit which aims to achieve progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through an approach food systems. The term “food system” refers to all activities associated with food arising from its production, processing, transportation and consumption. Transforming food systems is one of the most powerful and effective ways to progress towards the 17 SDGs, as food systems are linked to all major global challenges such as poverty, hunger, climate change, biodiversity loss and human well-being.
Almost half of Indian farmers are small, marginal landowners (owning less than 2 hectares) and many live below the poverty line or with stagnant incomes. In addition, the Indian agricultural sector has massive environmental impacts. Crop irrigation accounts for 90% of the country's freshwater use, depleting groundwater supplies and leading to severe shortages of drinking water every year. More than half of the country's ice-free land is used for agriculture, encroaching on the natural habitat of its biodiversity and threatening thousands of species with extinction. Fertilizers, pesticides, the use of diesel and other agricultural inputs emit large amounts of greenhouse gases that cause climate change and contribute to the pollution of groundwater and rivers, while the combustion of residues of culture causes episodes of air pollution every year. This environmental damage leads to human health problems which, in turn, translate into a net loss to the national economy.
In addition to all these economic and environmental costs of providing food to its people, India remains one of the most malnourished countries in the world suffering from a triple burden of hunger (undernutrition or calorie deficiency), over-nutrition ( overweight, obesity due to excessive calorie intake) and hidden hunger (micronutrient deficiency, i.e. deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals).
Almost one in three children under 5 in India suffers from undernourishment with 36% underweight, 38% stunted (short height for age) and 21% wasted (low body weight). relative to size). The number of stunted children in India accounts for almost a third of the cases worldwide. This coincides with a high prevalence of overweight, obesity and concomitant noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), with around 61 percent of deaths in India attributable to NCDs in 2017 and nearly 20 percent of the population suffering from overweight or dementia. 'obesity.
In addition, nearly two-thirds of the Indian population suffers from a deficiency of one or more micronutrients necessary for the proper functioning of the mind, body and immune system. In terms of individual nutrients, in both rural and urban areas, the current intake of 11 out of 24 essential micronutrients (fiber, iron, niacin, potassium, riboflavin, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin E, zinc, fatty acids polyunsaturated and pantothenic acid) is below recommended levels in almost all Indian states and Union territories. Average diets in many states do not meet the daily requirement for calcium and vitamin B12. A large proportion of the population cannot afford a balanced diet and this remains the main cause of nutritional insufficiency. However, even households with sufficient income to afford a healthy diet are deficient in micronutrients due to their daily food choices and consumption behavior. The good news is that recent scientific studies have resulted in sustainable diets at the national and state level that, if adopted, will ensure both nutritional security and environmental sustainability.
To switch to a sustainable diet, people in India on average would need to increase vegetable consumption by 2 times that of current levels; increase the consumption of fruits, legumes, and other coarse grains (eg, millet, sorghum or corn) 4 to 5 times, and the consumption of nuts more than 10 times. Consumption of oils, rice, wheat, and sugar should be drastically reduced from current levels in most states. Sustainable diets have been achieved by replacing nutrient-poor, high-footprint foods with nutrient-dense, low-footprint foods. For example, carbon emissions, the use of fresh water, nitrogen and the application of phosphorus fertilizers are often higher when producing staple grains that are highly valued in the country such as rice and wheat. , as coarse grains such as millet (bajra), ragi, sorghum (jowar), oats, barley or corn.
However, the micronutrient content per unit weight is higher in coarse grains than in wheat and rice. Therefore, replacing rice and wheat with these coarse grains in the diet can create win-win scenarios for nutrition and environmental outcomes at the national level. Replacing fast junk food or snacks high in bad nutrients such as sugar, sodium and saturated fat with fruits and vegetables will also improve the nutritional quality of the daily diet.
Government and industry have an important role to play in facilitating such a food transition and, in recent times, there are also positive signs here. For example, the Indian government which designated 2018 as the national year of millet. This is an excellent example of a policy to raise awareness and promote the production and consumption of sustainable food.
More tax incentives would be welcome from the government to discourage the production of foods with low nutrient content and high environmental impact while ensuring that farmers' incomes do not decline and that nutritious foods be available at affordable prices to people. The government should also plan other measures such as improved storage and logistics to minimize food loss, expansion of micronutrient supplementation and food fortification programs, including nutrient-rich foods, in the subsidized public distribution system (PDS).
Breaking down silos between departments and taking an integrated approach is the way forward for the government.
India's nascent but growing AgriTech industry has the opportunity to complement the efforts of the Indian government with innovative agriculture and food supply chain solutions that benefit farmers through efficiency improvements of production and ensure the distribution of the last mile of healthy food. Such a paradigm shift towards sustainable eating habits will also prompt food companies to innovate in the processing and formulation of products that do not alter taste while improving the nutritional profile of foods.
For example, rather than using 100% refined wheat flour (maida) or rice, coarse grains or lentil flour can be mixed in appropriate proportions with wheat flour to make cookies, noodles, cakes, bread, cookies, porridge.
It is high time for Indian consumers to raise awareness of the dire state of public health, nutrition and environment in the country and create demand for sustainable food products.
Changing our eating habits is certainly not easy, but we have nothing for nothing.
Source : Prof. Abhishek CHAUDHARY, specialist in biodiversity conservation, sustainable agricultural and food systems and environmental life cycle assessment.