Opinion

Pathways to healthy food, sustainable land-use

Ranjan Kumar Ghosh | Updated on September 08, 2019 Published on September 08, 2019

A diet rich in plant-based foods will free several million sq.km of land. India can help develop a new world culinary framework

To say that the future of our planet’s sustainability is ‘in our hands’, may not be merely metaphorical anymore. This year, three global and scientifically credible reports have been released, back-to-back, that are foretelling a similar story, albeit, in different narratives: the world needs to wake up to the consequences of food in its plate, especially as regards land availability and degradation.

Early in January, the ‘EAT-Lancet Commission Report’ was released where a lead author of the report, Prof. Walter Willett of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, summarised that “transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts. Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50 per cent. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits”.

Emphasising that ‘healthy diets’ and ‘sustainable food production’ are intricately linked, the report proposed a primarily flexitarian diet with an indicative break-up of the macro-nutrient and calorific intake per day that largely comes from a diversity of plant-based foods, low amounts from animal sources and very limited doses of refined, processed and sugary foods.

What has land to do with this? Another special report on ‘Climate Change and Land’, released earlier in August this year by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), provided evidence that “global population growth and changes in per capita consumption of food, feed, fibre, timber and energy have caused unprecedented rates of land and freshwater use...”

Of the total global ice-free land area, 1 per cent is used by infrastructure, 12 per cent by irrigated and non-irrigated crop-land, 37 per cent by intensive and extensive pastures, 22 per cent by plantation and timber forests and the only remaining 28 per cent are forested and un-forested ecosystems or barren land with minimal human use.

In toto, 71 per cent of global land is directly or indirectly linked to food and livestock production. The report further points out that diversification of the food system/balanced diets featuring plant-based foods could free several million sq. kilometres of land.

The two studies above talk about impacts and bring to the forefront the need for balanced and healthy diets to sustain the planet’s natural resources. The practical question, however, is: Whether in a globalised world with strong agricultural trade linkages and different consumption patterns, sustainable land use can ever be achieved?

Yet another report released a few weeks ago by the ‘UN-SDSN led FABLE Consortium’ presents results from a cross-country modelling exercise involving 18 countries that set medium term individual national targets to achieve zero hunger, low dietary disease risk, zero net deforestation, and minimum biodiversity, nitrogen and phosphorous losses — all at the same time.

The India part of modelling, led by IIM Ahmedabad, uses integrated calculation tools and participated in coordinated iterations with the 17 other countries. Indications from this exercise is that sustainable pathways can indeed be achieved by: investing in technology for large gains in agricultural productivity; shifts in diets towards less meat consumption; slowdown in population growth; reduced food losses; stable per-capita demand for non-food products; and the resulting fall in demand for pasture and crop-land.

According to Guido Schmidt-Traub, executive director of UN-SDSN, “results from the FABLE Consortium are encouraging and show that governments must design analytical instruments and policies to develop their land-use with a long-term perspective to avoid locking themselves into unsustainable land-use and food systems that would be very difficult and costly to reverse later”.

Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair IPCC WGII, said in an interview to Nature journal that, “we don’t want to tell people what to eat, but it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”

Top science-policymakers look up to India for global leadership in developing a new world culinary framework — given its extraordinary and historically deep plant-based cuisines. Is it then time to go beyond political jingoism, accept the question of nutritional security on scientific merits and be frontrunners in this change?

Ranjan Ghosh is a faculty member at IIM Ahmedabad. Article is written with inputs from Chandan Jha, research fellow, IIM Ahmedabad

Published on September 08, 2019
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