Is Our Diet And Food Culture Accelerating Climate Change?

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Scenario #1 – A grand Indian wedding with an impressive dinner arrangement. Multiple cuisine counters were an attraction for the guests. But sadly, not everything was consumed, and a lot of food was wasted.

Scenario #2 – The school recess just started. Some students run towards the mid-day meal; some others ran towards the chips vendor sitting outside the school.

Scenario #3 – People from an Indian city orders food online every day. The food is carried in plastic containers and plastic bags and is usually brought by the delivery person who travels 10–15 km on their bike. 

What is the common denominator in the above cases? Of course, “tempting food”, right? But something more links the aforementioned scenarios. Another “invisible” aspect that is common here is how our diet and food culture is accelerating climate change.

At every junction, our food interacts with climate crisis in some way or the other.

What food did you consume this morning? Well, that particular food has travelled through a chain. The food has its journey when it’s grown, processed, packaged, delivered to places, cooked, served, eaten, and when a part of that food is wasted. At every junction, it interacts with the climate crisis in some way or the other.

Rapid agricultural production in India during the Green Revolution of the 1970s was a result of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It worked then, with a higher yield of crops, but in the long term, it disturbed our ecology, polluted the land and soil, and degraded our health. This is the entry point where food production itself contributes to climate change. On the other hand, the instances of  organic farming in India are very low, as the total area under organic cultivation is just 1.5 million hectares out of a total 57.8 million (which is 2.59%).

By 2030, India is projected to become the most populous country in the world. The more the population, the more the food production, and considering the promotion of chemical farming, more contribution to climate change. This is because the agriculture sector is the world’s second-largest contributor to greenhouse gases emissions.

Another entry point is meat consumption. Calories from meat products pose a higher burden on natural resources. Fossil fuel usage, animal methane, effluent waste, water consumption, these processes, during meat production, cause pollution. For example, a study in the journal Science (2018), talks about how meat consumption will increase carbon emissions and lead to a reduction in biodiversity. According to a survey by the Registrar General of India (2014), more than 71% Indian population above the age of 15 consumes non-vegetarian food.

One can imagine how the food we eat affects our environment before reaching the plate. Thinking about this connection might generate feelings of “harshness” and “discomfort”, because, after all, it’s about what we eat, but I would say that these arguments are based on facts.

The story continues. The ways we handle, process, pack and cook food also affects the environment adversely. This may include the choice to use a plastic bag for each vegetable one might purchase, or disposing wet waste in plastic containers, or the waste of staple crops during transportation, the use of oil in food production which eventually is wasted, or the waste of humongous quantities of food in weddings—the list is unending where the food ends up being wasted.

For example, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 40% of food produced in India is wasted. Kitchen waste accounts for 50% of household waste among Indian families. What happens when we don’t segregate waste is that food which ends up in landfills  generates carbon dioxide and methane (greenhouse gases). The irony is that, on the one side, every third malnourished child in the world is from India and on the other side, we rank high in terms of food wastage, because of gaps in demand and supply logistics.

Food is one of the most basic needs of human beings. It is not easy to “digest” how our food habits disturb our environment. But there are many simple steps we can incorporate into our everyday routine.

Anganwadi workers learning kitchen gardening in Surat (Picture from Urban Health & Climate Resilience Centre Training, 2016)

Here is an eight-point action plan we must shift to, to encourage what we can call a “Climate conscious food culture”:

  1. Switch to organic farming. Government policies and subsidies for organic farming, terrace gardening and kitchen gardening are crucial. Capacity building for low-cost and low-space gardening methods need to be organized.
  2. Revive our traditional rich knowledge about how to grow food, what to eat, and how to eat. I would say that it automatically says no to processed food. It teaches one to consume a lot of seasonal produce. It will also teach people not to waste food.
  3. The translation of knowledge into action is always a long path. For example, a daily wage worker in a metro city might have fast food as part of their lifestyle. So, it also becomes the government’s duty to take care of access to food and the right to nutrition of the people, through the right policies and their implementation.
  4. Be conscious about what you eat daily, and how does it contribute to climate change directly or indirectly, through transport, the packaging material. Be mindful, track your food consumption patterns and adapt. The options can be figured out. We can start small, for example, here is a list of eateries in Bangalore which have eliminated plastic in their food serving system.
  5. Serve and fill the plate only as much as you need. Say no to food wastage. Enforcing a “no food waste” rule by eateries and restaurants is being tried out in India. Systematic efforts by the government can promote good practices.
  6. Segregate kitchen waste at the household level, reuse-recycle and convert it into compost as much as possible. Even the smallest action at the level of the individual household can prevent tonnes of waste accumulating in landfills.
  7. The next generation is watching and mimicking us. Demonstrate and train them to adapt. Also, the knowledge and skills provided to young people in schools will be sustained if they see their parents or family members adopting such practices in routine. In the real sense, the food culture will transfer from one generation to the next.
  8. Spread the word. Why limit such a pro-environment food culture to ourselves? Let’s spread it through dialogue. A dialogue with stakeholders from the government to demand food rights, and a dialogue among people, will show a clearer path to execute our responsibilities.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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