Climate change can influence diets and nutrition status via various pathways. Warming temperatures, erratic rainfalls and extreme weather events affect crop yield potential. It has been also noted by researchers that there is a decline in the nutritional quality of certain grains and legumes. Elevated atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentration leads to an increased risk of zinc and iron deficiency in people already living with low iron status.
Uneven nutrient supplies are often linked to recurring climatic events such as variations in seasonal food production, floods, droughts and cyclones. In developing countries such as India, besides food insecurity, nutrition is often undermined by poor access to clean water and sanitation facilities.
This is further compounded by an interaction between diarrheal disease and malnutrition. Uhygienic environment and unavailability of basic sanitation facilities in many areas undermine public health and lead to inadequate ability to absorb nutrients, particularly among children.
Diarrheal and foodborne diseases are likely to increase post-floods and cyclones, more so in low income neighbourhoods. In other words, climate factors can increase health risks.
Information technology enabled surveillance system for food and waterborne illnesses can help identify hotspots, predict outbreaks and estimate costs of burden, which would help in timely preparation and planning to reduce climate associated risks to nutrition status and health.
NFHS -5 reports that among the adult population of 15–49 years, 57 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men are anaemic. Consumption of Vitamin A and iron is particularly low, with barely a third of the required intake of Vitamin A being consumed on an average, according to National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) urban survey (2017) in 16 states.
Diet diversity would also address the burgeoning problem of overweight, obese and diabetic people. Their condition can only aggravate with excessive reliance on rice (high glycaemic index).
Every time we waste food – at home or in commercial preparation- the food system contributes to global warming emissions. Decentralized food waste management either through bio-composting or power generation can reduce load reaching landfills.
It is time to mainstream climate-smart and clean energy technologies for temperature controlled and safe storage of perishable produce, which are rich in micro-nutrients. Storage facilities would reduce food waste and loss and stabilise food price; improve skills and infrastructures to save nutrients of what we produce, process and consume; and improve access to nutritious food by all and response in emergencies, particularly coupled with safe drinking water and sanitation.
Such approaches promote nature-based solutions, shorter food supply chains, wider rural livelihood options and build self-reliance to achieve nutritional security for India through sustainable pathways.
The vision of Public Distribution System (PDS) can be expanded to include more local, hardy and nutritious grains, including millets and pulses. Furthermore, rice cultivation is fraught with concerns of dropping water tables, contribution to methane emissions during cultivation and post-harvest crop residue burning.
Nutrition and agriculture academia led campaigns can catalyse behaviour change by making the beneficiaries understand the need for the production and consumption of more diverse diets.
Further collaborations that link the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to grassroots initiatives of nutrition-based micro-enterprises at farm gates and in rural areas would support social change that can reinforce and sustain rural livelihoods.
Government initiatives strategising inclusion and targeting through direct benefit transfer to the most vulnerable and hard to reach population can help with resilience efforts. Data driven identification of vulnerable individuals and families to connect with them to bolster their food supplies through food gift cards and/or e-reimbursement would build resilience of population at the bottom of the pyramid.
Shorter, local and smarter (clean energy fuelled) food supply chains are more likely to respond to local needs and empower the weakest link, but this mechanism will take time for the benefits to reach the most needy. Sadly, climate disasters affect the groups of less resourced people the most and repeatedly.
The nutrition academia needs to rethink its role and ensure food systems are responsive to the nutrition needs of the population. The agriculture community needs to produce high yielding sustainable crops that fill gaps in nutrition intake. The governance systems need to incentivize the growth of nutrition feedback loops and consortiums so that food systems are inclusive. Nutritious food should be affordable and available to all throughout the year.
Expanding food processing technologies and creating temperature controlled storage so that the shelf life of perishable produce is extended is likely to bring equity in access and affordability of nutritious diet throughout the year, in addition, to bringing better economic returns to farmers and minimizing food loss and waste.
Policy instruments to incentivize investment in creating food processing hubs/zones in rural areas that support micro-enterprises producing nutrition dense products and creation of clean energy based food technologies are effective solutions for India.
Public private partnerships need to be leveraged for investments in shorter, local and climate-smart/green food supply chains to protect human health and planetary health.
(Meena Sehgal is a Senior Fellow and lead, Environment and Health Area, TERI. An epidemiologist, she works on environmental exposures and nutrition security issues.)