Achieving better nutrition, health and sustainability in India

October 15th, 2020

New study finds India has natural resource capacity to achieve nutrition security, reduce health risks and improve environmental sustainability

India is home to 1.3 billion people. Nearly 60% of the land in India is used for food production and is primarily cropped by smallholders. While India has made remarkable progress in producing sufficient food for its growing population over the last six decades, issues associated with human health and the environment are on the rise.

While people have more calories to eat than they used to in 1960, many people are not sufficiently nourished. Food quality is a growing issue. For example, people now eat less nutrient-rich food such as legumes and millets and more low-nutrient food such as refined grains and sugar. This low-quality food combined with unequal access to food and digestive disease leaves large parts of the population undernourished and susceptible to communicable and non-communicable diseases.

Furthermore, current food production negatively impacts the environment. It is responsible for nearly 90% of total freshwater use and 16% of the national greenhouse gas emissions. Farming practices have also resulted in soil degradation, groundwater depletion and over-use of fertilisers.

An international team of scientists from Harvard University, the University of Delaware, Oxford University and CSIRO has recently published a new study in the journal Nature Food. The study investigates the limits of India’s natural resource capacities to produce sufficient nutritious foods domestically for its population.

The scientists found that optimising natural resource use in India could provide enough nutritious foods to exceed dietary requirements for its 1.3 billion people.

“This could be achieved by allocating cropland and fresh water that is currently used for cereals, sugarcane and plant oils to the production of vegetables, fruit, potatoes, lentils and peanuts,” said lead author Kerstin Damerau, post-doctoral researcher at Harvard University.

The study found that total cropland use could be reduced by 27% and average per capita irrigation water inputs could be reduced by up to 40%, while still closing the majority of current nutrient gaps in the Indian diet.

Although this study did not look at minimising agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, associated emissions would decrease by up to 34%. Given India’s large potential for agroforestry, a land use management approach in which trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops  could reduce emissions further without limiting food production.

Depending on the final mix of domestically produced foods, associated dietary shifts could have a significant impact on diet-related health risks such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In comparison to current food supplies, modelled supplies are associated with a reduction in total diet-related premature deaths by 14 to 30%.

To achieve this transformation in food production, political hurdles would need to be overcome that currently hinder development towards more efficient natural resource use in the agricultural sector. “There are also economic viability considerations for both farmers and consumers associated with more sustainable and healthy food supply patterns”, said co-author Cecile Godde, research scientist at CSIRO.

While this shift represents a major shift away from current production and consumption patterns, particularly refined cereals, to free resources for more traditional and nutritious foods, the environmental and health benefits for such a change could be substantial.