Growing conversations on climate change in the context of reducing greenhouse gas 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 greenhouse gas emitters in India and the United States, a recent study by a team of researchers at Tulane University finds that the US recommendations had the highest carbon footprint while India had the smallest. At 3.83 kg carbon dioxide-equivalent per day, the US recommendations was 4.5 times that of the recommended diet for India whose dietary guidelines were equivalent to 0.86 kg carbon dioxide per day.

They compared the national food-based dietary guidelines 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,” Rose told Mongabay-India. “Close to half (48%) of the footprint is due to the dairy recommendation, about 30% come from vegetables and 13% from grains.”

While the US vegetarian dietary guideline is much lower than the main US guideline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (equivalent to 1.80 kg carbon dioxide per day), it was still over twice that of India’s largely due to the high US 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 carbon dioxide per day) and about 1.5 times that of Germany (equivalent to 2.25 kg carbon dioxide 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,” Rose said. “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.”

The agricultural crop being harvested in Punjab. Photo credit: 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,” Rose added. “Guidelines can also influence our choices indirectly by setting patterns adopted by government food programs, or by influencing the food industry’s production practices.”

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 US guidelines, which have a carbon footprint that is over five times that of India’s,” explained Rose.

Tackling emissions

India is the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world after China and the US where agriculture is responsible for 18% of total national emissions. Together with China, Brazil, and the United States, India accounts for 39% 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 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 India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions “do not bind it to any sector-specific mitigation obligation or action, including in agriculture sector”.

India’s greenhouse gas emissions associated with diets are “greatest for rice and livestock products” like milk and eggs because these are widely consumed products with high greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product, reports a 2017 paper and although there is limited consumption of ruminant meat in India, its high greenhouse gas intensity means that it is the third greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

While mitigation options are available in on-farm management, dietary change could help to decrease greenhouse gas emissions considerably, but changes in dietary intakes to reduce greenhouse gas 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,” Deb Pal told Mongabay-India. “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.”

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 greenhouse gas 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% decrease in agriculture-associated carbon dioxide emissions from 2014 to 2016 – the 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 does not 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 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 biodiversities – 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.

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

Affordability of 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 $3 to $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 $1 per person per day.

Meeting the EAT-Lancet recommendations would set households back by an additional $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.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.