Friday, November 29, 2019

My City My Responsibility - Indian food choices (myths and facts) in a changing Climate!

Dear All, 

Representative image for an Indian dish consisting of veg, non veg and dairy foodstuff.

Meeting new people is always exciting, recently I got an opportunity to attend a conference on Urban Food systems organised by ICLEI, South Asia in collaboration with Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Bank (WB). I feel that in this rapidly changing climate, fast paced life coupled with work and peer pressure, our health is getting compromised. There are growing concerns over health issues like diabetes, obesity and cancer. 

According to Dr Jayashree Todkar (, a renowned surgeon on Obesity and Diabetes (who spoke at the conference), India has the highest number of diabetic patients in the world and has the second largest population in childhood obesity. Obesity is one of the root causes of many of the diseases that we are facing. We can see that a lot of people are getting conscious about this and are demanding healthy food options. Consequently, we also see advertisements flooding all media, promoting so-called health foods, fitness apps, gadgets, exercises and variety of diet plans etc., that promise to make our lives healthy. Dr Todkar however recommended that eating local foods with nutritional balance is the key to good health, rather than giving up certain foods, or eating only one type of food, etc.

As far as health is concerned, as per Dr Todkar, a much bigger concern is 'nutritional illiteracy' among Indians. We should focus on eating all types of foods that are locally grown using sustainable practices, aiming for a nutritionally balanced diet, in keeping with our physique and our lifestyle. People will be able to make the right choices for their health and the environment if they understood the basics of what different foods 'give' us nutritionally and what are the paths taken and impacts produced by the different foods in reaching our plates.

While health is one's major concern, we also should think about a few other things in relation with food. There are clear linkages between our food production and distribution systems and the climate crisis. Feeding 7 billion (and eventually 10 billion) people to provide adequate nutrition in a world where food production systems everywhere are increasingly threatened by climate change impacts is the biggest challenge that the humanity is facing today.

So how do we make the right food choices that will help ourselves as well as help address the climate crisis? Many people are touting veganism as the answer to this question.

During the conference I had a brief discussion with Dr Todkar on veganism and its implications for nutrition as well as its relevance to climate change. She was deeply concerned on this issue and responded promptly to me. According to her, it is not right to promote vegetarianism i.e. having plant based diet or veganism which is a strict plant based diet that excludes all animal products i.e dairy as well as meat, as the only 'healthy' option. There can be some serious nutritional deficiencies in shifting to these food choices and these can adversely affect our health.

As per evolutionary evidence, human beings are herbivorous as well as carnivorous. Let's leave food habits associated with caste and religion out of this discussion. As per science a plant based/vegan diet is rich in fiber, full of antioxidants and multiple vitamins and minerals but lacks in rich source of protein and essential amino acids which are the building blocks of our body. These important building blocks can be sourced only through food stuffs that are originating from animals - milk, eggs, meat, etc.

According to Dr Priyadarshini Karve, the proponents of veganism dismiss the nutrition-related concerns saying that even the animals we eat are getting the proteins from plants, and therefore plants are the ultimate source of protein. This reasoning actually shows a total lack of understanding of biochemistry. It cannot however be denied that there are many diseases that are linked with meat-centric diets. However, our concerns should be focused on Indian food habits.

She further added, traditional Indian non-vegetarians do not have a 'meat-centric' diet. A traditional Indian nonvegetarian's annual meat intake is negligible compared to that of say an American meat eater. Dairy is a big component of a vegetarian diet, but most adults consume very little milk. They consume more processed milk products like curds and buttermilk and there are a number of health benefits associated with 'fermented' foods. Indians also tend to eat a lot of milk-based sweets and these should indeed by avoided due to ill-effects of sugar.

Dr Karve explained that as far as the link of meat and dairy based diets with climate change is concerned, yes, indeed it is true that the energy spend and productive land engaged in producing 1 kg of animal-based food is much more than 1 kg of plant-based food. However, this in itself is a 'false' comparison, especially in the context of traditional Indian diets. A traditional non-vegetarian may be consuming say 200-250 g of rice daily, but the consumption of dairy and meat together may be just about 500-700 g per week! So the right question to ask then is what is the carbon emission associated with my annual intake of rice Vs my annual intake of meat and dairy products. To find this answer, I need to look at not just the quantities but also the production and distribution processes of the various food items in my typical food platter. If you started doing this kind of an analysis, you will realise that one cannot generalise that plant based foods are low carbon! What if sitting in Pune, a person is daily eating basmati rice cultivated in energy and fertilizer intensive farms of Punjab, but the milk supply is coming from a traditional dairy farmer about 20 km away, who owns 2 buffalos that are 'free-range' (i.e., not being fed any industrially produced cattle feed)? 

According to Dr Karve, the culprit in the contribution of both agriculture and animal husbandry to climate change is 'industrialisation' of food production systems in general, and this definitely needs to be addressed on a war footing. This requires focusing on 'HOW' various food items reach our dinner plates rather than 'WHAT' are the food items on the dinner plate. You need to treat the disease, not kill the patient!

All this discussion made us realise that a lot of the statistics that is presented about health as well as climate impacts of meat and dairy based diets have emerged from the Western world. This statistics cannot be applied blindly to Asians in general, and Indians in particular, whose eating patterns are quite different. Of course, the data can be used as a cautionary signal against the increasingly westernised eating habits being acquired by urban Indians. 

In short, keeping an open mind about food, educating ourselves about our health and food production and distribution systems will serve us far better than putting blanket bans on some food types or jumping into the latest diet fads!

Pournima Agarkar. 

Also see: MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: One and Only Solution to Climate Change?