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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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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