While we currently produce more than enough food for the global population, the United Nations states that 8.9 per cent of the world’s population, ie 690 million people remain hungry. This figure is even more unsettling when one takes into account that, 30 to 40 per cent of the food produced in the world is lost before it even reaches the commercial market, for a variety of reasons ranging from improper storage and processing to transportation and more. According to the Food Waste Index Report 2021 by UNEP, India alone wastes 50 kg per capita per year.

When I was a child in the early 1990s, my family, like many people in this nation, faced rainy days as well as easier ones. I still remember the harder days, when we were unable to afford vegetables to make a decent meal. As a nomadic traveller, I have gone days without the mere sight of food.

I know from personal experience what true hunger feels like. I know the pain in your belly and the weight in your chest that comes with not having the means to feed yourself.

That is why these jarring figures got me thinking – if we had to draw up a meal plan that protected the health of our planet as well as all those who inhabit it, what would we eat?

What I found over the course of my research changed the way I look at food forever.

For most of us, consumption habits and preferences can be traced back to our early childhood, inculcated within the familial systems we occupy. In other words, we eat what our families, friends and neighbours eat.

I grew up in a vegetarian family. Like most Indian mothers, my mother wanted me to grow up to be a strong, healthy boy and would goad me to drink a glass of milk every day. While I didn’t like the milk, I must admit that I loved sweet dahi (yoghurt) and cherished the bowl I would devour with my meals. My chapatis were served slathered with ghee, and whenever we’d go out for dinner, paneer sabzi was a must-have, followed by dessert.

Can you see anything wrong with this diet? I couldn’t.

As far as I understood it, my diet did not kill any animals for their meat, and we paid for our indulgences with hard-earned money – what could be wrong with that? In my eyes, I was doing the right thing and living in harmony with society and nature.

But what if I were to tell you that both vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets are unsustainable in the long-term, and are responsible for the destruction of not only our environment but also of our health?

The Uncomfortable Realities of “Comfort Food”

The phrase “comfort food” is a contradiction that succinctly captures the state of consumption in the twenty-first century. To illustrate this point, let’s take the example of the comfort food that has existed for over four millennia, and is consumed by a large majority of the world’s population even today – chocolate.

From Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to hot cacao in the winter months, chocolate has been synonymous with comfort, indulgence and the simple joys of childhood. However, according to a report published in 2018, the global chocolate industry contributes around 2.1 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere every year.

The cultivation of cacao, the main ingredient of chocolate, is also responsible for hectares of deforested land every year, with forests lost due to cacao production estimated to be between two and three million hectares between 1988 and 2008. These rainforests are home to several endangered species, including orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos. Between 2001 and 2014, the Mighty Earth Report recorded 2,91,254 acres of protected forests cleared in Cote d’Ivoire alone.

Chocolate production is also highly water-intensive, with a single kilogram of chocolate utilizing about 10,000 litres of water.

While cacao isn’t produced in India, Indians account for a tenth of global confectionery consumption, with consumption per capita at 100 g to 200 g per person. This means that a majority of our chocolate must travel across oceans and land to reach us, adding to its carbon footprint with every kilometre travelled, with an average bar of chocolate carrying a carbon footprint of approximately 3.45 gm of carbon dioxide per gram of chocolate.

This is not to mention that the chocolate industry is highly reliant upon the dairy industry, which, in turn, is responsible for 4 per cent of total anthropogenic GHG emissions.

If this is the first time you have had the chance to think about what goes into that sugary-sweet bite of chocolate, you are probably shocked. I know I was.

The typical reaction to this information is guilt – people blame themselves for what they did not know.

But I’m going to tell you something really important: It’s not your fault you didn’t know.

Big corporations allocate massive advertising and public relations budgets to ensure that we, as consumers, are kept in the dark. Lakhs of rupees each year are invested in creating the fantasy of “comfort” in comfort foods, while the reality of environmental degradation, which can negatively impact sales, is hushed.

When reading this chapter, it is important to remember that you are not ignorant, these facts are deliberately buried, labelled “industry secrets” by those who prioritise profits over natural welfare and sustainability.

I know what you’re thinking:

If this information is such a secret, how do I know about it?

My relationship with sustainability was completely transformed in 2017 when I was living in a small village in the Spiti Valley, a remote trans-Himalayan region in the northern tip of India, which shares a border with China. A nomad by nature, I found myself drawn to the serenity and remoteness of mountains, far away from the hustle and bustle of metropolises. Here, I could be closer to nature and share meaningful exchanges with fellow travellers through the region.

At the time, I was a self-declared student of sustainability, learning as much as I could about the complexities of climate change and how I, as an individual, was contributing to it. It was so that I happened to come across a ground-breaking documentary co-directed by my now dear friend, Keegan Kuhn. An incomparable narrative chronicling the harsh realities of animal agriculture, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret is a documentary that changed the way I looked at food forever.

Over an hour and thirty minutes, I learned things that I would never have even considered possible until this point. Suddenly, an intricate web of unsustainable practices unfurled before me – a web that I found myself caught in, along with so many others.

For instance, the dairy industry emerged as one of the leading sources of GHG emissions due to foraging, which requires hectares upon hectares of deforested land. Methane, which accounts for approximately 25 per cent of global warming1, and whose CO2 equivalent is approximately 84x19, is also produced in vast quantities on dairy farms through the cattle’s natural bodily functions, fermentation practices and manure storage.

I learnt about palm oil, a standard ingredient in a wide range of food and beauty products, which accounts for the loss of 300 football fields worth of rainforests every single hour. Even my seemingly innocent morning coffee became almost sinister in its implications.

The more I researched, the further the web stretched.

This was just the tip of the iceberg, but it is also the unfiltered reality of our times.

Excerpted with permission from I’m a Climate Optimist: An Easy Guide to Lead a Sustainable Life, Aakash Ranison, ebury Press.