Food for Thought

Social systems that are affected by climate change

January 21, 2016 04:14 pm | Updated September 23, 2016 02:08 am IST - MADURAI:



Leading scientists believe that climate change will impact human health through three “social-systems”: Nutrition, Occupational Health and lastly, Conflict and Migration.

Nutrition is how much and what quality of food we get to eat. How much nutrition we get is a function of our agricultural production, post-harvest food losses, food prices and access, socio-economic factors (such as whether the third girl child will receive her “fair” share) and diseases that affect nutrition.

Climate change has a role to play in most of these.

Agricultural yields will fall steeply in hot countries in a business-as-usual scenario. This will mean that there is less food available locally. A hotter climate also means food will rot faster unless properly stored. This again means less food is available locally. It is estimated that 40 per cent of India’s vegetables and fruits rot post-harvest before reaching our plates. Food prices could increase as populations grow (and production falls in tropical countries) and food might need to be imported from temperate climates. This will also affect access: A poor farmer will have more access to locally grown crops rather than imported food. Diseases such as diarrhoea would increase in a flood-drought alternating climate, lowering any nourishment the food provides.

The World Bank says there are 60 million underweight children in India. This is a big problem.

Nutrition in early childhood and for a pregnant woman is critical: any malnutrition here affects brain development that has lifelong consequences for the child. Children who are malnourished in the womb or in their very early years perform worse than their better-nourished peers in school and are more likely to succumb to serious infections in childhood. Further, childhood malnutrition in India is likely because of infection or inappropriate feeding and caring practises in the first few years of life. This means the increased disease load that comes with the changing climate will add a double whammy to an already vulnerable group: poor children will have less access to food and a higher disease burden resulting in very poor nutrition.

A perhaps-non-intuitive action point is to encourage breast feeding. A common source of infection for babies is poorly sterilized feeding bottles. Breast feeding has the twin benefits of minimising infection risks and providing optimal nutrition. Another is to bring a midday meal scheme equivalent for toddlers.

The second social system to consider is Occupational Health: to understand this idea better, let us consider the lives of two people: Priya who works as a receptionist in a hotel in Mumbai and Prakash, who along with his family, works the fields growing cotton in Vidarbha. Fast forward 10 years. The temperature would be a little more than a degree warmer than it was in the past century. Water resources would very stressed with several of the groundwater aquifers running dry in the agricultural belts in India.

Sunita’s life has become harder in the past few years. Traffic is now so bad, and so many people have moved to Mumbai that she now has a solid two-hour uncomfortable commute. It’s also noticeably hotter. Due to the frequent flooding in Mumbai, the tourist and business traveller inflow has come down. Those who come prefer to take the last flight out, reducing the guests staying at Sunita’s hotel. So management is not very generous with salaries and is stricter with requirements. Still, the lobby is air-conditioned which makes for a welcome relief from the heat.

Prakash does not know how he will last out one more year. Many families in his village have left, trusting an unknown dream in a distant city. He has built farm ponds on his soil, uses drip irrigation and is meticulous in keeping up to date on the latest trends on growing cotton, but if the rain falls when it never has – in the harvest season when the fragile bolls of cotton are open to the skies, what can he do? It’s also getting hotter every year and working the fields is killing. Three women have died so far in this season because of heat exposure. He is not sure how to survive.

Half of India’s workforce works in agriculture. Agricultural work is back breaking, fully exposed to the elements – including the slowly climbing temperature. Several studies report that the loss of productivity has already occurred during the hottest and wettest months due to climate change. This will get worse in the coming decades. The only solution is to improve the skills of our people to move out of agriculture and create an environment that produces jobs for them. Moreover, one study indicates that in South East Asia half the afternoon work hours will be lost by 2050 due to a need for rest breaks.

So what to do?

The clarion call is clear: We need to move out jobs where productivity is dependent on physical labour and to weather-proof our working environments. This means educating our population fast and well. And creating millions of jobs to employ those smart graduates. Will India start to stand up?

(Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.)

The next article in this series will appear on February 5.

Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to

(Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming.)

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