Climate change is exacerbating India’s nutrition and health insecurity

Indian agriculture, and thereby India’s food production, is highly vulnerable to climate change

By Shweta Khandelwal

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (October 2018) shared that human activities have led to a 1°C (0.8°C to 1.2°C) rise in temperatures (global warming) above pre-industrial levels. This will reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052, if it continues to increase at the current rate. The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (the primary greenhouse gas) have risen to 410 parts per million (ppm) from about 280 ppm in pre-industrial times. The World Health Organisation estimated that approximately 250,000 deaths annually between 2030 and 2050 could be due to climate change. Several reports confirm that the poorest people, already suffering from the highest rates of undernutrition, will be the most vulnerable to climate change.

The consequences of our irresponsibly depleting Earth’s natural resources are both predictable and dire. Indian agriculture, and thereby India’s food production, is highly vulnerable to climate change largely because the sector continues to be highly sensitive to monsoon variability. About 65% of India’s cropped area is rain-fed. With its huge and increasing population and rapid rate of urbanisation, India may experience much bigger levels of multiple health and nutrition threats owing to climate change. India already is one of the top rankers in multiple forms of malnutrition globally. With only about one in 10 children getting adequate nutrition, we ought to keep other potentially influential (to health and nutrition) variables favourable. There are multiple reasons contributing to poor nutritional status of our population, spanning from food scarcity to (unhealthy) food excess, increased consumption of refined cereals, simple sugars and salt, etc. However, adverse variables like climate change, pollution, etc, added to this scenario can further catalyse plummeting of the public health nutrition (PHN) indices.

The connection between climate change and nutrition is complex and multifaceted. Undernutrition can be exacerbated (increased nutrient demands and reduced nutrient absorption) by the effects of climate change at all stages of the food value chain. Suboptimal diet (micronutrient deficiencies and overall poor nutritional status) during vulnerable stages, especially pregnancy lactation, may have adverse repercussions for several generations. Studies show that the onset of risk factors for non-communicable diseases like hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, etc, is faster and earlier in people with nutrient deficiencies than those consuming a healthy diet. The recently released EAT-Lancet Commission’s food advisory recommends consumption of fruits and vegetables rather than meat for preserving own health and nature. But there is evidence that environmental changes reduce yields of starchy staple crops and alter nutrient composition of fruits, vegetables and legumes. This is quite a serious issue in a country like India that grapples with micronutrient and protein deficiency in more than half of its population. Studies show that the absence of adaptation strategies, increasing ambient temperature in (sub)tropical areas, tropospheric ozone, water salinity and decreasing water availability would all negatively affect vegetable and legume yields. Further, the increasing level of carbon dioxide is also implicated in “dilution effect” resulting in lesser vitamins and minerals per unit of yield. In fact, related issues around reducing use of pesticides, preventing food wastage, promoting dietary diversity, and creating sustainable, accessible and robust food systems also need more voice and power.

India already depends a lot on imports for fulfilling nutritional needs of the population, and with the ensuing climate change, the access to safe and nutritious food, and affordability, is bound to be impacted severely. We must take specific actions to help curb adverse impacts of climate change on PHN:

– Funding needs to be earmarked for designing, rolling out modern climate change-resistant infrastructure and technology to tackle with climate change and nutrition insecurity. To reduce nutrition risks along the entire value chain, early warning systems are needed so that farmers can produce sufficient food and traders can adequately store food in the face of extreme weather events.

– Mitigation and adaptation strategies are needed to offset adverse impacts of climate change on food production. Climate change should instil greater urgency to find more sustainable, resilient and efficient ways of producing, trading, distributing and consuming diversified agricultural food products.

– Use food technologists to devise food storage and processing practices that reduce climate-related food safety concerns and help to preserve the nutritional value of foods. These strategies can also support reducing food waste.

– Build and strengthen capacity of public health professionals and allied forces, which may be used for prevention and management of climate change-related issues. Increasing the number of healthcare facilities/staff can improve access to healthcare for vulnerable populations, especially the rural poor.

– Academic and research capacity need to be augmented. Integrated curricula drawing upon best practices from agriculture, public health, nutrition, transport and environment to prepare qualified interdisciplinary workforce should be designed and adopted. Options for all interested scholars to do certified courses (of varying duration and modes) should be available.

– Invest in social protection schemes and livelihood security mechanisms to tackle malnutrition and build resilience. Interventions aimed at reducing undernutrition have a greater and rapid impact on poverty than economic growth on its own. It has been seen that while a 1% decrease in poverty rate achieves a 0.25% reduction in malnutrition rate, a reduction of 1% in undernutrition eventually yields 4% decrease in poverty.

– Make disaster management robust and capable of preventing, managing and restoring normalcy as soon as possible.

– Policy coherence is the most vital piece. The cross-sectoral nature of nutrition, adverse impact of climate change, and the potential interaction between these two domains calls for increased policy coherence and institutional collaboration at regional, national and international levels. An example that may require deeper deliberations around “boon versus bane” could be the introduction of diesel engines, which are sometimes promoted to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, but have been found to release more fine particulates and nitrogen oxides than gasoline engines.

All this is not oblivious to experts and leaders on global health, sustainable agriculture, nutrition and environment. In fact, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) contain a commitment to “end hunger and ensure access by all people to safe and nutritious food all year round” (Goal 2) and to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” (Goal 13). India’s recently launched National Nutrition Mission or the POSHAN Abhiyaan envisions to integrate and strengthen action around all three pillars of nutrition—nutrition specific, nutrition sensitive and the enabling environment—to attain SDGs. This integrated platform is an ideal way to start advocating for PHN in an environment-friendly manner. However, state and central alignment of priorities and coordination will play a key role in smooth roll-out of envisaged activities. The adage “united we stand, divided we fall” resonates more than ever in this case. The solutions for this looming complex threat of food and nutrition insecurity, intertwined with poor health and environmental outcomes, may require coming together of several forces rather than fighting individual battles. This area requires urgent prioritisation, strong political will and dedicated resources to yield sustainable and public health friendly measures.

(The author is head, Nutrition Research, and associate professor, Public Health Foundation of India. Views are personal)