Impact of Your Food Habits on the Environment

Food is an essential requirement. We all agree on this. Food is the source of our energy, and, of course, food is what we all aim to achieve here on this planet for sustenance. Our working positions don’t matter much when food is served. We can say that our life revolves around food. Here is the proof. Having a good meal is scientifically proven to combat stress, anger, diseases, provide nutrition, increase productivity, maneuver one from bad habits, instill peace and security and even deter unfamiliarity amongst strangers. For animals and plants too, food is a fuel. Although their idea of food may vary from ours, but the bottom line is that its intake is necessary for survival. It is a well-known proverb that, “A family that eats together, stays together”. No matter how much we point out the significance of food for humans and animals alike, words fall short to elucidate the worth of this entity of great value.

Food and environment

India and its Food Resources

Food is classified into various categories based on the type of nutrition it provides. As for human health, daily intake of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, roughages/fibers in a well-balanced quantity is a must. Any shortage of nutrients might lead to diseases like Scurvy, Kwashiorkor, and Marasmus etc. As for calories, a human being has been averaged out to consume a minimum of 2500 kcal/day. Any less and the result would be undernourishment. If calorie intake is <80% of the minimum value, a person is labeled severely undernourished. India is a developing country, with almost 3/4ths of its population involved in agriculture, yet the nation showcases an exponential growth in terms of people who die of malnutrition or undernourishment every year. On an average, 40 million people die of starvation every year around the world with countries like India and Africa contributing the most to these statistics. Most individuals affected are in the age group of 1-5 years. This renders children, the future of our nation, taking the direct hit from one of the most deteriorating health issues present on a global scale.

India has been introducing varied techniques and equipment to help its agriculturists produce food for everyone but the problems arising from using hybrid varieties, GM crops, and unavailability of proper resources inclusive of issues related to storage, transportation and distribution have been increasing drastically. Green Revolution, from M.S. Swaminathan, did help India reach a near sustainable goal in providing for all and making sure no one goes hungry, but this boost needs more than what meets the eye. It needs prospecting of areas where people suffer and helping them understand how and where to cultivate. In addition, obtaining water in semi-arid and arid areas, where the population suffers the most, is a hindrance. Water is by far the greatest resource that promotes agriculture. It is a fact that fields need to be properly irrigated and timely supply of water to crops for a variety of purposes other than irrigation is required. Thus making agriculture water resource intrinsic; i.e. it cannot survive without water. Although fertilizers and manure are to be utilized to maintain a crop field and an acute storage, transportation and distribution service needs to be maintained, but water is an entity, agriculture cannot do without, especially if we are directed towards staple diet crops in India like Rice, Wheat, Barley, and Maize.

Talking about the Water Footprint of staples such as rice and wheat, regression models have calculated the total blue (irrigation) WF of these as 19% and 31%, respectively. This showcases the volume of fresh water utilized in irrigation of our dietary crops, which given the rate at which water scarcity is increasing, is not a good sign for sustainability. Not only this, emissions from rice fields such as releases of methane lead to an overall increase in the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere, augmenting greenhouse effect. On the other front, leachates from these farms contain precipitates of phosphate, nitrogen, sulphur, and other inorganic compounds which increase soil salinity and block air spaces in the soil, thus leading to waterlogging. These effects are impending just at the baseline of food production. Dominoes will start falling from here on.

Let’s visit a food processing industry. The amount of water required to manage, dispense, segregate, dissolve, produce, pack, and transport the raw materials into useful products is humongous. At each step, the inclusion of water is imminent. To run machinery at a processing plant, be it a dairy farm, meat industry or vegetable plantation, or a rice mill, electricity is indispensable. For instance, Anwar and Kapur (1983) reported that the energy requirement in China for milling one tonne of rice was 25 kWh or 6.9 L of diesel showing energy-intensive operations. What looms ahead is the fact that increasing demand for food from the country’s ever-growing population will take a lunge towards the environment, causing immense deterioration in the future.

Food Schemes and the Environment

India has to maintain its population of more than a billion and feed them at the same time, so numerous schemes and yojnas have been put into place like Integrated Child Development Services (October 2, 1975), Midday Meal Scheme (August 15, 1995), Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojna (September 25, 2001), and National Food Security Mission (2007 for 5 years) etc. These aim to reduce incidences of malnutrition, undernourishment, and diseases related to the same in children (1-6 years), mothers, and the general populace. Another novel directive was started in 2011 known as IndiaGAP (GAP – Good Agricultural Practices). It is a set of standards that ensure the safety of foods reaching the general population. Farmers, producers, and even tradesmen have to register for this regulatory standard and inspections, surprise and planned, are held to safeguard the health of people consuming food products from the specified areas.

However, inclusions of many stratagems which involve the distribution of pesticides, herbicides, organophosphates, chemical fertilizers at a cheap rate have their side-effects. And to state the truth, these potentially harmful outcomes are not alien to us. One we have all heard about is Bio-magnification. Every person living and breathing knows that our environment is what sustains us. It links us closely to every other living creature anywhere on the planet. A web of intertwining linkages exists around us and a small aberration in any string can easily be vibrated through the whole of this intra-planetary network. Hence, the introduction of Xenobiotic substances like Herbicides or Pesticides, which are new to nature and hard to disintegrate, greatly diminishes the ability of our ecosystem to degenerate these. The sequence that follows is:

Xenobiotic

This flowchart easily distinguishes harmful impacts of introducing chemicals into the environment, even if for enhancing agriculture. It is because in a short span of time, the same augmenters would destroy plant and animal life on this planet, reducing biodiversity and causing human extinction. This is the fate which follows. An example of such a catastrophe can be found in India as well. The case is of Diclofenac, which was instituted as a painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug for cattle. It biomagnified in the environment and led to endangering the Indian Vulture species. Though people may be oblivious to the role of scavengers like Indian Vulture in the environment, it remains a fact that such organisms are needed as much as the autotrophs.

Food Crisis and Livestock

This steers us to the next issue. Unchecked and unrestrained production of livestock in the country is a new pick that ruins our ecosystem gradually. Though animals as a source of food are highly thought of as an end to food crisis because biomass of an animal that feeds, say, for example, 40 people is equivalent to the biomass of nearly 100 plants. Thus, reducing the dependency on agriculture and redistributing food to every individual all over the country. This may have been the answer if a development of ranches and farms would have been done in the right manner. But we always think ahead of ourselves and produce more than we want, leading to disputes within the environment. It is perfectly fine to allow rearing of poultry, farm animals, and other livestock to sustain our needs, but doing so unchecked has led to new disasters. Involving oneself in cattle rearing for meat is an arduous task and needs expertise, knowledge, and consideration for the environment. But we have left the shade of sanity to fulfill our gluttonous psyche with food we can’t even handle. What has happened? We waste more food than we eat; restarting our circle of food scarcity. People, who afford more, waste more and individuals who can’t, hardly eat at all. This leads to inequity in food distribution. The outcome of our ill-conceived idea is still oblivious to us. What we sought for and what we acquired hugely differ now in the real-life scenario. It is not wrong to say that we have lost sight of our objective i.e. food security and are aimlessly drifting towards mindless slaughter and wastage of precious life. Nourishment is the goal and not sophistication or mannerisms.

What to do?

What we need now is a thorough understanding of methodologies to prospect for, acquire and introduce techniques, ideas and menus that cater to food for all’ rather than food for one’.

  1. Instead of buying out all varieties of food most of which would end up in the dustbins, it is imperative to stay on a balanced diet of vegetables, milk, cheese, and meat.
  2. Reducing the intake of meat varieties like pork, red meat, and meat rich in fats etc. is also beneficial to health.
  3. Farm animals are to be reared on well-developed farmlands, which need reduced forest cover, thus leading to deforestation. This is also true of slash and burns agricultural methods. Both need to be reduced.
  4. Cattle produce a large amount of CH4 and CO2 due to their life processes, which are harmful to our planet as increased concentration of these greenhouse gases leads to enhanced global warming.
  5. Using drugs and chemical solvents to prevent infectious diseases in livestock tips the balance in our ecosystems as more of these non-biodegradable compounds are leached into groundwater reservoirs, causing pollution.
  6. Food habits greatly impact all around us. When we eat sensibly, we are in a way protecting our environment. Just by eating in a calculated manner, we could provide more to people who do not eat even one square meal a day.
  7. When buying food, make sure to include those materials only that you are bound to use. Don’t buy stuff you can’t eat.
  8. Most food wastages are imminent in marriage parties and celebrations. This is where NGO’s like ashrayakruti.org; muslimwelfaretrust.com; Feeding India etc. come into play, solving two of the most common problems: Hunger and Food Wastage.
  9. Awareness about food waste and a shortage of food is to be spread through events held all over the country so that people would understand their role in safeguarding food health.
  10. Food waste is organic in composition, thus when carelessly discarded, acts as the source of a number of infectious diseases, ruining human health. This needs to be completely avoided.
  11. The most important technique that could be employed is growing, cultivating, rearing, and raising crop plants and livestock in a methodical way, which aims to reduce emissions, increase food supply, cater to all, and distribute and transport materials in a healthy manner.

At the end, it is imperative to pontificate a renowned adage, although heard all over, everywhere, but rarely understood and implemented, from the Father of Our Nation, Mahatma Gandhi:

“Earth Has Enough to Satisfy Our Need but Not Our Greed”

Author’s Bio:

Adeela Hameed: Miss Adeela’s hometown is Srinagar, Kashmir and she is currently pursuing Masters in Environmental Science from Amity University Noida.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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