India has natural resource capacity to achieve nutrition security, reduce health risks and improve environmental sustainability

India’s food system is facing increasing environmental and demographic challenges. Our study shows that closing current dietary nutrient gaps and achieving nutrition security are rather hindered by socio-economic and political hurdles than environmental boundaries.

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The number of publications on how to achieve healthy, sustainable eating patterns is steadily growing. Most of them follow a similar approach by adopting specific dietary recommendations, and comparing the environmental impacts of current diets with those of desired food intakes. These recommendations can either be derived from dietary guidelines issued by governmental bodies or epidemiological modeling approaches. The former often come under criticism for rather reflecting successful lobbying efforts than scientifically tested healthy eating patterns. The latter are based on observational data on primarily Western diet patterns and their associated effects on human health.

The idea for this study was to flip this narrative and start with the resource capacities available for nutritious food production. We were rather interested in finding out if it was possible to provide sufficient essential dietary nutrients than matching food production with specific quantities of foods as prescribed by particular national or international diet recommendations. Such an approach could provide another, complementary piece of evidence on how to transform food systems to increase both environmental sustainability and nutritional quality of diets. 

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Given India’s high population density and vulnerable environmental conditions, the country’s food systems appears to face the greatest possible challenges for achieving sufficient sustainable food production domestically. A large amount of data on current food consumption, land and freshwater demand as well as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the Indian agricultural sector was available to estimate current dietary nutrient gaps and agricultural resource use efficiencies. Modeling optimized resource inputs revealed that despite low per capita availability of natural resources, India’s agricultural sector is currently merely tapping into its large potential for producing highly nutritious foods such as vegetables, fruit, certain traditional grains (nutri-grains), legumes and nuts.

Schematic model overview

Further, using surplus crop residues as feed source could provide additional animal-source foods without increasing natural resource use and only minimal effects on GHG emissions. Even reducing regional land and freshwater inputs significantly would still allow closing most dietary nutrient gaps. While current national food security policies focus mainly on staple crops with poor nutritional value (refined wheat, rice, sugar), we were able to show that India has sufficient natural resource capacities to diversify the country’s diets domestically, and thus reduce diet-related health risks.

Kerstin Damerau

Postdoctoral researcher, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

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