Sustaining our earth and nourishing our bodies

There is a need to develop a policy framework at the intersection of gender, climate, nutrition, and food value chains

Updated - April 22, 2024 03:57 pm IST

Published - April 22, 2024 01:24 am IST

Farmers in a paddy field  in the Godavari delta in Andhra Pradesh.

Farmers in a paddy field in the Godavari delta in Andhra Pradesh. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The women of a self-help group in Khamdorgi village in Kanker district, Chhattisgarh, have spared 10 decimals of land for multi-layer farming to mitigate land degradation and under-nutrition, and to secure round-the-year incomes. They created four layers: the root layer to grow radish and beetroot; the surface layer for leafy vegetables; an above-the-surface layer for brinjal; and creepers (bottle gourd and long beans). They also planted two papaya trees, which are yet to bear fruits. Apart from minimising disruptions to the soil ecosystem, the initiative started to generate an income for the group in two months with minimal input costs while promising nutritional security.

An intricate relationship

Climate change, nutrition, and food security have an intricate relationship emphasising an urgent need to address issues at this intersection at both the global and the regional levels.

The Rome Declaration on Nutrition underscores the challenges existing food systems face in providing sufficient, safe, diverse, and nutrient-rich food for everyone. Approximately 800 million people worldwide don’t have reliable access to food. Two billion people suffer from iron and zinc deficiencies. Food systems today are also responsible for a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change impacts food value chains and affects agricultural yields, nutritional quality, food access, and energy-intensive processes. While a balanced diet is recommended, populations are often unable to have one thanks to disparities in production systems as well as individual dietary choices.

India itself suffers from many forms of malnutrition: 32% of children under five are underweight and 74% of the population can’t afford a healthy diet. Unhealthy diets are leading to a surge in the prevalence of non-communicable diseases.

However, it is also true that over the years, India has made notable progress in understanding the sustainability and nutritional contents of diets. It is now important for India to reflect on whether healthy diets can help mitigate climate change as well. A sustainable diet needs to serve health and nutrition demands, meet cultural expectations, submit to economic necessities, and be just.

Women are especially disproportionately affected by climate change and poor nutrition, despite being important food-system stakeholders. In Chhattisgarh, some communities have more gender-just food systems – which are systems that recognise women as equal contributors to both productive and reproductive economies – with equal rights and entitlements, less drudgery, ability to access infrastructure and technologies, and with an even distribution of responsibilities. Communities in the State with a more gender-just food system were also seen to be more resilient against shocks like droughts. When women’s collectives are involved in decision-making about their livelihoods, they get better access to financial assets, natural resources, and knowledge. Not surprisingly, then, they are more productive and have better health and nutritional outcomes.

Indigenous food systems in Chhattisgarh have sustained communities for thousands of generations. They are derived mainly from the surrounding natural environment with minimum human intervention. Many people live in forests and consume edible greens, fleshy fruits, root vegetables, mushrooms, grains, various forest produce, and wild meat. Working with local communities on their diets based on locally available food has been able to improve their nutrition status.

Chhattisgarh’s indigenous women have also been known to establish “famine reserves” of millets – which require far fewer inputs than paddy crops – by storing grains using traditional methods. And increasing their access to millets in this way can improve their bodies’ iron content.

Reducing emissions

A diet higher in plant-based foods is also more environmentally sustainable than one with more animal foods. The latter can be substituted with plant-based meats and dairy alternatives. We also need to shift to plants that consume less energy, land, and water, resulting in lower emissions. Researchers have found that the concentrations of protein, iron, and zinc could be 3-17% lower in crops grown in environments where the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is 550 ppm versus when the CO2 concentration is just above 400 ppm (Matthew R. Smith and Samuel Myers, 2018). Given this warning, we need to adopt a value-chain approach to improve the benefits that accrue to communities, such as lowering emissions together with optimising for their dietary choices/needs from the household level.

One example of such an approach is ‘Millet Mission Chhattisgarh’, which the State government launched in 2021 to establish Chhattisgarh as India’s leading producer of millets. The State identified 85 blocks in 20 districts as key cultivation areas and allocated ₹170 crore and an input grant of ₹9,000 per hectare. The initiative has the potential to address both nutritional and environmental concerns by showcasing millets’ nutritional value, low water footprint, and climate resilience, and potential to further gender equality.

The way forward must thus include scaling up (as well as decentralising) diversified food production systems, promoting underutilised indigenous foods, and developing an analytical framework at the intersection of gender, climate, nutrition, and food value chains. Focusing on nutritious food alone will not help reduce the impact of food systems on the environment. We need to continuously and extensively monitor emissions linked to the production and distribution of food, and ensure the corresponding assessment tools are also more accessible to local communities.

Diverse foods consumption

In the final analysis, there is strong evidence that diverse food consumption can have a strong impact on nutrition and on per capita emissions. Focusing on nutritious diets alone will not help assess and reduce impact on the environment; it must be supported by linking diets to emissions as well. This in turn could force production systems to become more diverse, nutrition-sensitive, and emissions-sensitive.

Apart from national and regional policies, food production and consumption are also influenced by cultural values, societal norms, public policies, and markets – signalling a need to integrate society, government, and markets (samaaj, sarkar aur bazaar).

Neeraja Nitin Kudimotri is Associate Director, Community Action Labs at Transform Rural India

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