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Combating climate change with a sustainable food system

  • Category
    Environment
  • Published
    18th Jan, 2022

Context

Several recent reports highlight how food systems and climate change are intrinsically connected while urging for the transformation of our food system if the Paris Agreement objectives are ever to be achieved.

Analysis

How does the food system become a challenge?

  • Hunger & Increased utilization: Providing sustainable nutritious foods for the world’s population without damaging the environment is the biggest challenge of the 21st century.
    • A growing hungry population across the globe demands increased utilization of agricultural land, more grazing land for livestock, and more utilization of fertilizers and genetically modified crops, which would hurt the environment by increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), environmental pollution, compromising biodiversity, amongst other consequences.
  • Food security: Food security is based on four dimensions—
    • availability of food
    • physical and economic accessibility
    • utilization and bioavailability
    • sustenance of these three dimensions
  • To meet growing nutritional needs, food production per capita has increased by over 30 percent since 1961, accompanied by an 800 percent rise in utilizing nitrogen fertilizers and a 100 percent rise in using water resources for irrigation.

Important Facts


  • 821 million people are currently undernourished
  • 151 million children under five are stunted
  • 613 million women and girls aged 15 to 49 are iron deficient
  • 2 billion adults are overweight or obese

What are the environmental impacts of agriculture, food system, and the modern diet?

  • Increased demand: Food, energy, and water are the three pillars of sustainable development. The increasing world population has led to exponential growth in demand for all three. 
  • GHG emission: More than a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to food. 
  • Resource utilization: Agriculture uses half of all the habitable, including ice-free and desert-free, land in the world, 70% of the world’s freshwater and is responsible for 78% of global eutrophication i.e., pollution of waterways with nutrient-rich pollutants.
    • A study by the University of Oxford evaluated data from around 38,000 farms across 119 countries and reported that the agricultural process, including transportation and deforestation, led to the production of 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide which is equivalent to 26% of the GHG each year. 
      • This report also revealed that the production of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy occupies 83% of the world’s farmland and contributes to 56-58% of GHG.

Eutrophication

Eutrophication is the process in which a water body becomes overly enriched with nutrients, leading to the plentiful growth of simple plant life. The excessive growth (or bloom) of algae and plankton in a water body are indicators of this process. Eutrophication is considered to be a serious environmental concern since it often results in the deterioration of water quality and the depletion of dissolved oxygen in water bodies. Eutrophic waters can eventually become “dead zones” that are incapable of supporting life.

A sustainable food system is health-promotive and environment-friendly

  • Addressing climate change with a sustainable diet: Globally, malnutrition and unhealthy diets are among the top 10 risk factors contributing to disease burden. Addressing climate change with a sustainable diet includes strategies to combat all forms of malnutrition including undernutrition, hidden hunger or micronutrient deficiency; and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as obesity, diabetes type 2, and cardiovascular diseases, amongst others.
  • Sustainable eating: It involves consuming foods that have a little environmental impact or low carbon footprint but are, at the same time, enriched in essential nutrients to fulfill nutritional needs. Sustainable eating is accessible, economic, diverse, nutritionally adequate, safe, healthy, and culturally acceptable.

Measures enumerated as part of sustainable eating and to address climate change 

  • Eat local: Choose seasonal, local, fresh, home-grown foods. A smaller carbon footprint is created by eating locally by reducing food miles and transportation GHG emissions.
  • Gradual shift from red meat:  Reducing consumption of red meats and switching to white meat and fish such as chicken, turkey, seafood and shellfish is a sustainable way for many.
  • Choose climate-smart crops: Apart from making a shift in choosing meats, it’s important to choose climate-smart crops such as millets to reduce carbon footprint and ensure sustainable eating. 
  • The year 2023 has been proclaimed the International Year of Millets by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to make people aware of the health benefits of millets, their sustainability under harsh climate conditions, and their potential as a ‘future food’ in the context of rapid climate change. 
  • Millets such as jawar, bajra, ragi, and barley grow well across the globe; require little crop maintenance; and are gluten-free, rich in protein, dietary fiber, and essential micronutrients – iron, calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, etc. 
  • These whole grains hold the potential to address the triple burden of malnutrition by reducing micronutrients deficiency, preventing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity, and lowering the risk of undernutrition.
  •  A 2018 comparative study from India reported that replacing rice cultivation with maize, finger millet, pearl millet, or sorghum reduced irrigation water demand by 33%.

Conclusion

The factors that influence eating habits go beyond health and environmental concerns, such as local availability, seasonality, affordability, and preferences. Shifting to foods with zero or minimum carbon footprint is the best course of action to address climate change. However, The key to an environmentally-friendly sustainable diet is growing your food when you can; choosing nutritious whole foods; reducing the consumption of refined carbohydrates, trans-fats, and ultra-processed foods; buying from local vendors; minimizing waste; and eating more plant-based foods.

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