Realistic and healthy changes to the Indian diet could help “future proof” the Indian food system against the declining freshwater resources available for agriculture.
A recent modelling study published by The Lancet Planetary Health identified the potential role of dietary changes as a solution to declining groundwater levels.
In many parts of the world, groundwater resources are depleting faster than they can be replenished. In India, they are being used at an unsustainably high proportion and water availability per person is likely to decrease substantially over the coming decades. Moreover, malnutrition remains high in the country, while obesity is increasing among the wealthier urban population.
To combat these growing challenges, the study recognized the need for a food system that is flexible to the combined effects of dietary and epidemiological transitions, population growth, and environmental change. One potential solution is to tackle the falling groundwater levels.
Researchers studied five distinct Indian dietary patterns derived from the Indian Migration Study, which surveyed over 7,000 people in both urban and rural settings from 2005-2007. Following which, they changed the makeup of these diet patterns to meet the predicted reductions in groundwater availability per person in 2025 (18%) and 2050 (30%), thereby, also achieving WHO nutritional guidelines for carbohydrates, fats, free sugars, protein, sodium, fruits, and vegetables, with no change in total dietary energy.
Dietary changes suggested
- Consume less wheat and dairy, and more fruits, vegetable and pulses.
- Consume less wheat and more rice as wheat-based diets have larger groundwater footprint. Unlike rice that is typically grown in the wet season, wheat is grown in the dry season and requires irrigation.
- Switch to fruits that have a lower water footprint involved in their production. For instance, switch from grapes, guavas and mangoes to apples, melons, papayas and oranges.
- Modify the average diet to increase fruit consumption by 51.5g per day and vegetable consumption by 17.5g per day.
- Reduce consumption of poultry. A 6.8g per day reduction could lead to a 30% reduction in freshwater use and a 13% reduction in dietary greenhouse gas emissions.
The study was done by linking each food group to data for blue water footprints and greenhouse gas emissions. (Blue water footprint indicates the amount of water sourced from the surface or groundwater for the production of a particular food item).
The health modeling shows that reductions in the risks of various non-communicable diseases, especially coronary heart disease, could be expected from the proposed changes in diets. These outcomes are largely due to the increase in fruit and vegetable consumption. Optimized diets would lead to an overall improved population health outcomes. Furthermore, the dietary changes are also accompanied by a reduction in diet-related greenhouse gas emissions.
Modest changes to dietary patterns could reduce irrigation water requirements per person in a geographically diverse Indian sample and that these changes would also reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emissions and improve population health.
To know more about the study, click here.