Future-Proofing The Indian Diet

Switching to less water-intensive crops would not only improve India’s food security but also lead to a healthier population, modelling study shows.

AsianScientist (Apr. 13, 2017) – Moderate changes to typical Indian diets could help to ‘future proof’ the Indian food system against the predicted decline in availability of groundwater over the coming decades, according to a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

Food production in India is heavily reliant on farming that requires a large amount of irrigation with groundwater. In some regions, groundwater is being depleted faster than it can be replenished. As the population grows, the amount of groundwater available per person is predicted to decline by as much as 30 percent by 2050.

“The food system in India will be under increasing pressure as the population increases and global environments change,” said Professor K Srinath Reddy, President of Public Health Foundation of India. “We are already seeing increased risk of drought in parts of the country and this will have an impact on the ability of India to produce healthy and nutritious diets for all.”

“This new analysis highlights the importance of groundwater for Indian agriculture and shows that, in the future, dietary choices will have an important role to play in the resilience of the Indian food system.”

Researchers studied five distinct Indian dietary patterns derived from the Indian Migration Study, which surveyed over 7,000 people in both urban and rural settings from 2005-2007. The researchers changed the makeup of these diet patterns to meet the predicted reductions in groundwater availability per person in 2025 (18 percent) and 2050 (30 percent).

The optimized diets suggested by the researchers meet WHO nutritional guidelines and are designed to minimize changes from current eating patterns. Generally, the diet changes suggested involved consuming less wheat and dairy, and more fruits, vegetables and pulses. The models also suggested switching the types of fruit consumed, for example, fruits like oranges and apples have a much lower water footprint involved in their production than mangoes.

While fairly modest changes were needed to meet an 18 percent reduction in freshwater use by 2025, the researchers stressed that meeting the 30 percent reduction target by 2050 would require more drastic changes. For example, wheat-based diets have a large groundwater footprint because, unlike rice that is typically grown during wet seasons, wheat is grown in the dry season and requires irrigation. Reducing groundwater requirements for wheat-based diets therefore involves either a large reduction in wheat consumption or major changes to production methods.

The research demonstrated that many of the optimized diets would also lead to overall improved population health outcomes. Where the suggested dietary changes most strongly improved the nutritional profile of the diets, the health benefits were shown to be larger. For example, increasing the diversity of diets consumed largely by poorer, more rural communities resulted in more than 13,500 additional life years per 100,000 people, largely due to a reduce risk of heart disease and cancer.

Conversely, reducing the groundwater footprints of some highly diverse diets, typically consumed by wealthier more urban communities, had a slight negative health effect due in part to reduced fruit and vegetable consumption.

“With water resources predicted to decline dramatically in the future, we need to identify potential solutions that future proof the Indian food system and ensure that it can deliver healthy and nutritious diets for all,” said study leader Professor Alan Dangour from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“Food systems are complex and there will never be a ‘fix-all’ solution, but our models suggest that modest dietary changes that are broadly beneficial for both the environment and health are a good place to start.”

The article can be found at: Milner et al. (2017) Projected Health Effects of Realistic Dietary Changes to Address Freshwater Constraints in India: A Modelling Study.


Source: Wellcome Trust; Photo: Pexels.
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