India’s dietary guidelines have a relatively lower carbon footprint: study

  • India’s dietary guidelines have the lowest carbon footprint compared to Germany, the Netherlands, Oman, Thailand, Uruguay, and the United States, a recent study has said.
  • India’s dietary carbon footprint is 1.6 to 1.8 times lower than the EAT-Lancet recommendations that suggest a diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods for both improved health and environmental benefits.
  • But a diverse food basket, especially consumption of non-cereal food groups such as fruits and vegetables, is needed for a more nutrition-sensitive food environment in rural India and households would have to shell out more mainly to spend on meat, fish, and poultry, fruits and dairy, to meet the EAT-Lancet recommendations, finds another study.

Growing conversations on climate change in the context of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have sparked more meaningful conversations on dietary diversity, ethical consumption and planetary health in recent years with many celebrities also embracing the ‘green living’ chatter.

In 2019 findings from the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health called for sweeping food system changes by providing the first scientific targets for a healthy diet from a sustainable food production system that operates within planetary boundaries for food. While India’s dietary guidelines developed by the National Institute of Nutrition have a relatively light carbon footprint, even when compared to the EAT-Lancet recommendations, dietary diversity is needed to move rural India towards more nutrition-sensitive food environments, said researchers in two separate studies.

Teasing apart the environmental impacts of national dietary guidelines for seven countries including top GHG emitters India and the United States, a recent study by a team of researchers at Tulane University finds that the U.S. recommendations had the highest carbon footprint while India had the smallest. At 3.83 kg carbon dioxide (CO2)-equivalent per day, the U.S. recommendations was 4.5 times that of the recommended diet for India whose dietary guidelines were equivalent to 0.86 kg CO2 per day. 

They compared the national food-based dietary guidelines (FBDG) and food consumption patterns of seven countries − Germany, India, the Netherlands, Oman, Thailand, Uruguay, and the United States − to investigate differences in greenhouse gas emissions associated with different dietary guidelines.

The EAT-Lancet recommended diet was also included because that is an international reference that was recently developed to be both health-promoting and environmentally friendly, notes Diego Rose, Professor and Director of Nutrition, School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine, Tulane University, the paper’s corresponding author. “India’s guidelines have the lowest carbon footprint from all the ones we studied. Close to half (48 percent) of the footprint is due to the dairy recommendation, about 30 percent come from vegetables, and 13 percent from grains,” Rose told Mongabay-India.

While the U.S. vegetarian dietary guideline is much lower than the main U.S. guideline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (equivalent to 1.80 kg CO2 per day), it was still over twice that of India’s largely due to the high U.S. dairy recommendation. The carbon footprint of the US dietary guidelines was found to be about 1.2 times that of the Netherlands (equivalent to 2.86 kg CO2 per day) and about 1.5 times that of Germany (equivalent to 2.25 kg CO2 per day), according to the study.

Rose explains that greenhouse gases are spewed out in the production of foods, whether that be from growing plants or raising animals and the dietary carbon footprint of humans is based on all the impacts of producing all the different foods we eat. “But not all foods are the same; the production of animal foods has a greater impact on the environment than plant foods. India’s guidelines have such a low footprint because their protein food recommendation is all based on plants. Yes, the guidelines make recommendations for dairy, but these foods fill an important nutritional role and are part of a rich cultural tradition.”

Agricultural crop being harvested in Punjab. Photo by Neil Palmer of CIAT/Flickr-Wikimedia Commons.

Further, a country’s dietary guidelines can influence consumers’ choices and therefore their dietary carbon footprints. “This can happen directly, for those consumers who are motivated to eat healthfully and seek out this guidance. Guidelines can also influence our choices indirectly by setting patterns adopted by government food programs, or by influencing the food industry’s production practices,” Rose adds. 

Between India’s guidelines and EAT-Lancet recommendations, the footprint of the EAT-Lancet recommendations is 1.6 to 1.8 times greater than India’s. This is because the dietary guidelines from India recommend pulses as the protein food, whereas in the EAT-Lancet guidelines, several animal proteins are recommended. “Still, these recommendations for animal foods are much lower than the U.S. guidelines, which have a carbon footprint that is over five times that of India’s,” explained Rose.

Tackling GHG emissions and biodiversity loss

India is the third-largest GHG emitter in the world after China and the U.S. where agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of total national emissions. Together with China, Brazil, and the United States, India accounts for 39 percent of emissions from agriculture, notes a CGIAR review of countries’ 2015 and 2016 commitments to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Adaptations in agriculture feature prominently in India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) under the Paris Agreement to contain the increase in global average temperature to well below two degrees Celsius and to act to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But India clarifies that its INDCs “do not bind it to any sector-specific mitigation obligation or action, including in agriculture sector.”

India’s GHG emissions associated with diets are “greatest for rice and livestock products” like milk and eggs because these are widely consumed products with high GHG emissions per unit of product, reports a 2017 paper; and although there is limited consumption of ruminant meat in India, its high GHG intensity means that it is the third greatest contributor to GHG emissions. While mitigation options are available in on-farm management, dietary change could help to decrease GHG emissions considerably, but changes in dietary intakes to reduce GHG emissions would need to “consider the nutritional implications, so as not to compromise health”, the paper cautions.

Livestock rearing (enteric fermentation and manure management) and rice cultivation in India mainly spew methane, roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas, while nitrous oxide, 300-times worse than carbon dioxide, is principally produced when fertilisers are applied to agricultural soils. The agriculture sector is the main source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions. 

Barun Deb Pal, Project Manager, International Food Policy Research Institute, South Asia, who was not associated with the studies, emphasised unravelling the entire value chain of food production corresponding to different dietary patterns. “If we need to enhance the dietary diversity for nutritional security, then we also need to understand where we are emitting greenhouse gases. Dietary pattern is changing partly due to climate change and partly due to income effect which encourages people to also embrace packaged and junk foods,” Deb Pal told Mongabay-India.

In India, steps at the primary production stage that improve yields and harvests, such as production and use of agricultural inputs, farm machinery, soil disturbance, residue management and irrigation, lead to the biggest share of agricultural GHG emissions. He underscored the importance of interventions in animal feed in the livestock sector. “One aspect is human diets but the other is animal food. We need some interventions there.”

In its Third Biennial Update Report submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change earlier this year, India mentioned a 2.25 percent decrease in agriculture-associated carbon dioxide emissions from 2014 to 2016– first time a decrease in India’s inventory was registered for a sector between two consecutive inventory years. Additionally for India, the thrust is also on boosting its low agricultural productivity while ensuring it doesn’t create additional burdens on the environment and ecology. 

A recently released report from the first-ever collaboration between the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-selected scientists, underscores increasing sustainable agricultural and forestry practices to improve the capacity to adapt to climate change, enhance biodiversity, increase carbon storage and reduce emissions. Eliminating subsidies that support local and national activities harmful to biodiversity – such as deforestation, over-fertilisation and over-fishing, can also support climate change mitigation and adaptation, together with changing individual consumption patterns, reducing loss and waste, and shifting diets, especially in rich countries, toward more plant-based options.

Affordability of sustainable diets

Healthy diets, both for humans and the planet, also need to be affordable. While ground-truthing the cost of achieving the EAT-Lancet recommended diet, researcher Vidya Vemireddy, who works on agricultural economics found out with her co-authors that getting there (the recommendations) will require that healthy diets be affordable for people.

The cost of the EAT-Lancet diets is USD 3 to USD 5 per person per day in rural India. The current cost of actual diets in rural India [Munger (Bihar), Maharajganj (Uttar Pradesh), and Kandhamal and Kalahandi (Odisha)] is USD 1 per person per day. Meeting the EAT-Lancet recommendations would set households back by an additional USD 2.80 – 4.30 per person per day, mainly to spend on three non-staple food groups: meat, fish, and poultry, fruits and dairy.

“But if we need to have nutritional security as an objective, we need diversity of food groups, especially enhancing the intake of the non-cereal groups such as fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry,” Vemireddy, a professor at Centre for Management in Agriculture, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, told Mongabay-India, noting that seasonal fluctuations in price and costs are high for fruits, green leafy vegetables and other vegetables. 

From a policy perspective, Vemireddy and co-authors write in the study that there is a need for “convergence of policies” in the domains of agriculture, health, education and others to improve the affordability of diets in India. Affordability can be ensured by both, increasing incomes as well as making the prices of nutritious foods more affordable. 

On the supply side, a shift towards more nutrition-sensitive food systems from the current staple grain fundamentalism policy is the need of the hour, they said. Pointing out the “persistent bias of agricultural policies” in favour of staple cereals like rice and wheat has “constrained incentives for diversification of the production system”, they say strategies like diversification of cropping systems can both ensure diversity of food through own production as well as through increased incomes that result from crop sales for predominantly agrarian and rural communities.

Cost of diet estimates for actual and recommended diets in rural India, May 2019. Photo by Soumya Gupta et al.
Cost of diet estimates for actual and recommended diets in rural India, May 2019. Photo by Soumya Gupta et al.


Banner image: Indian dietary guidelines have a relatively low carbon footprint compared to countries such as the United States but a greater diversity of the food basket is needed for nutritional security. Photo by Maskaravivek/Wikimedia Commons.

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