Can nutritionally diverse cropping systems make India’s children resilient to future drought-linked stunting?

According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, children in primarily arid, poorly-governed countries with little trade, such as war-torn Yemen and South Sudan, are likely to experience stunting during future drought conditions. On the other hand, countries like India and Nepal that were more vulnerable to drought-linked malnutrition in the 1990s are no longer unprotected from average droughts.

The study maps the effects of droughts on child stunting or having low height for a certain age, since 1990 in 53 countries by using over 580,000 observations of children from these countries.

Factors such as good governance, nutritionally diverse crops, higher levels of imports per capita, overall crop production, and irrigation can make children resilient to droughts, finds the study. “By assessing all of these factors quantitatively, we were able to identify the places that were the most vulnerable to drought,” explained lead author Matthew Cooper of the University of Maryland, United States, in a statement. “These were predominantly arid, poorly governed countries with little trade, including Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen. The model basically helps us understand and explain that in the past when there has been a drought which factors determine whether or not the kids will be malnourished.”

Cooper, who started this work as part of the 2018 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program, told Mongabay about India-specific findings of the study. “In the 1990s a drought would have very likely led to increases in malnutrition, but that’s not so much the case today,” he said. India has one-third of the world’s stunted children, according to the 2018 Global Nutrition Report.

The Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change report predicts higher risk from droughts and precipitation deficits if global warming not addressed. Credit: Pushkarv/Wikimedia Commons

“According to our model, India had high enough levels of government effectiveness, crop diversity and international trade among other factors,” he said. “So it looks like a common drought wouldn’t be expected to have much of an impact on average malnutrition scores.”

The model factors in the effects of rainfall anomalies on observed child Height-for-Age Z scores – or HAZ scores – a common indicator of child stunting.

“Using our model to predict vulnerability based on geographic data from the years 2000 and 1990 shows that droughts in those years would have led to greater decreases in mean HAZ scores in many places than a drought would today and that areas modelled as drought-resilient in 2020, such as India, were previously more drought vulnerable,” the study said.

However, the authors also add that the model is best taken as a conservative estimate of where drought-induced undernutrition is likely to occur but “not a prediction of where it will not occur”.

The study comes close on the heels of a United Nations report that warned how the rise in global temperatures, linked to increasing pressures on fertile soil, risked jeopardising food security for the planet.

Cooper says that one of the most interesting findings of this study is that nutritionally diverse cropping systems can provide a lot of resilience. “When you have a better diet, even if it’s restricted because yields are low, you are still getting better nourished than if you have a poor diet,” he said.

Nutritionally diverse crops systems will have crops that respond differently to drought and extreme events, said Liangzhi You, Senior Research Fellow, Environment and Production Technology, International Food Policy Research Institute, who was not involved in the study.

“Crop diversity is critical in reducing vulnerability and increasing food system resilience from the production side,” You told Mongabay. “Different crops have different tolerance for drought and extreme events and in a diverse group of crops, in particular, in mostly rain-fed, smallholder agriculture, some crops could still survive in an extreme event.”

Dubbing the study rigorous, occupational and environmental health expert Kelly Baker stressed it is important to study the linkages between climate and child growth because it is known for certain that the world will be experiencing more of both droughts and floods, and more severe droughts and floods.

And concerns stemming from extreme events are different in different parts of the world.

“For high-income regions of the world where malnutrition is more a byproduct of food choices or genetic diseases, the concern is of slippage – a problem that could reemerge if our governments and society are non-adaptive?,” Baker told Mongabay. “For low-income regions where malnutrition is a problem of scarcity of nutritious foods, the concern is whether with existing global disparities in malnutrition disease burden will grow.”

If governments and societies are not resilient in meeting water and food needs, we could see increased conflict over resources, growth in the number of people – children especially – dying from hunger, and escalation in economic migration, she said.

“But given that we are still learning how climate change will affect us all, yes it would be wise for India to still consider policies that promote drought and flood resilience,” said Baker.

Nutrition and agriculture

As climate change makes drought more commonplace and more severe, results of the study will aid policymakers by highlighting which areas are most vulnerable, as well as which factors contribute the most to creating resilient food systems.

This information could help global actors like the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation or the World Health Organisation to get a sense of where to target aid and where populations expected to be the most vulnerable to droughts are situated, said Cooper.

The factors that create resilience can also be “useful to development practitioners and NGOs working in drought-vulnerable countries” in terms of highlighting the benefits of “advocating for and implementing nutritionally diverse farming systems” as a way to improve drought resilience.

Tuber crops grown in shifting cultivation system of the Konyak tribe of Nagaland. Credit: DK Pandey/Mongabay

The Indian agriculture research system has a National Innovation in Climate Resilient Agriculture initiative that has integrated farming systems, conservation agriculture and developing climate-resilient crop varieties as some of its components.

India launched the National Nutrition Mission in 2018, named the POSHAN Abhiyaan, the country’s flagship programme to improve nutritional outcomes for children, pregnant women and lactating mothers. The initiative aims to monitor, supervise, fix targets and guide nutrition-related interventions across ministries to reduce the level of stunting, under-nutrition, anaemia and low birth weight babies.

While the Abhiyaan talks of convergence and diet diversification, it does not explicitly speak about crop diversification as a strategy, said Bhavani RV, director, Agriculture Nutrition Health Programme, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.

Bhavani underlined mainstreaming the nutrition dimension in the farming system through the farming system for nutrition approach. This approach is a location-specific model, to be designed taking into account local resource availability.

“Production diversity for consumption diversity is integral to the farming system for nutrition approach,” Bhavani said. “Farming system for nutrition is relevant in a context where there is a problem of malnutrition and a large section of the population is dependent on agriculture.”

But critical to agricultural planning – when to plant the crops, should farmers invest in seeds and fertiliser – and decision-making – when to irrigate, how much to irrigate – is climate data, in particular, seasonal climate forecasting.

“This is true not only for India but also for the rest of the world,” said You. “The challenge, for India and other developing countries, is that they simply don’t have the capacity for such medium-term forecasting.”

But to what extent is drought as a factor important/significant in influencing stunting in India? Baker said addressing a range of other interrelated issues such as low maternal weight and infectious diseases is crucial.

“The links between water scarcity, food insecurity, and malnutrition are fairly well established, although drought-related food scarcity is not the leading cause of stunting everywhere in India,” Baker said.

“Quantity and quality of food are necessary for maintaining growth and development, but stunting is also caused by low maternal weight, low infant birth weight, and infectious disease [often worse in the monsoon season]. So I wouldn’t expect adequate rainfall alone to resolve India’s malnutrition burden. Addressing maternal malnutrition and improving basic water, sanitation, and hygiene to prevent diarrhoeal disease transmission in the monsoons and beyond will also be required.”

Child rights

As the effects of climate change become more visible and extreme, they are likely to adversely affect the lives of children and adolescents all over the world, according to the 2014 UNICEF report Challenges of Climate Change: Children on the Front Line.

Beyond being of practical relevance to development practitioners and other policymakers, Cooper said the modelling work shows how much just one of the main effects of climate change – more severe and more frequent droughts – will impact especially children in poor countries.

“Children in poor countries who have not contributed to the climate change problem themselves will be affected and this is a grave injustice that needs to be addressed,” he added.

Students in a primary school in Manjhipara village. Credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay

Children and young people represent 30% of the world’s population. Over 99% of deaths – already attributable to climate-related changes – occur in developing countries and children makeup over 80% of those deaths, the report states.

Facing this inequity in terms of climate impacts and recognising that the environment around them is at risk, youth activists across the globe have vehemently protested the government and business inaction on climate change in recent years. In the latest protest, likely to be one of the largest environmental movement in history, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg led thousands of people across 150 countries on Friday, September 20 in the Global Climate Strike.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.