Food production in India is heavily reliant on farming that requires a large amount of irrigation with groundwater. In some regions, groundwater is being depleted faster than it can be replenished. As the population grows, the amount of groundwater available per person is predicted to decline by as much as 30% by 2050. There is an urgent need to understand how water use in agriculture can be managed to ensure that a rapidly growing population can be fed healthily with dwindling groundwater resources. Prof K Srinath Reddy, President of Public Health Foundation of India said: "The food system in India will be under increasing pressure as the population increases and global environments change. We are already seeing increased risk of drought in parts of the country and this will have an impact on the ability of India to produce healthy and nutritious diets for all. This new analysis highlights the importance of groundwater for Indian agriculture and shows that, in the future, dietary choices will have an important role to play in the resilience of the Indian food system."
“Modifying diets by a few grams per day according to the composition of vegetables, fruit and meat could significantly reduce groundwater use in India, and help the country meet the challenge of feeding 1.64 billion people by 2050...The study looked specifically at India, where approximately half of the usable water is currently required for irrigation. The population of India is predicted to rise to 1.64 billion people by 2050, and in order to ensure enough freshwater is available, water use will need to be reduced by a third...They found that modifying the average diet to increase fruit consumption by 51.5g per day and vegetable consumption by 17.5g per day, along with a reduction in the consumption of poultry of 6.8g per day could lead to a 30% reduction in freshwater use and a 13% reduction in dietary greenhouse gas emissions... Our study ...finds modest dietary changes could help meet the challenge of developing a resilient food system in the country."
Generally, the diet changes suggested involved consuming less wheat and dairy, and more fruits, vegetables and pulses. The models also suggested switching the types of fruit consumed, for example, fruits like oranges and apples have a much lower water footprint involved in their production than mangoes.
For example, wheat-based diets have a large groundwater footprint because, unlike rice that is typically grown during wet seasons, wheat is grown in the dry season and requires irrigation. Reducing groundwater requirements for wheat-based diets therefore involves either a large reduction in wheat consumption or major changes to production methods.
The research demonstrated that many of the optimised diets would also lead to overall improved population health outcomes. Where the suggested dietary changes most strongly improved the nutritional profile of the diets, the health benefits were shown to be larger. For example, increasing the diversity of diets consumed largely by poorer, more rural communities resulted in more than 13,500 additional life years per 100,000 people, largely due to a reduce risk of heart disease and cancer.
Prof Alan Dangour from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who led the study said: "With water resources predicted to decline dramatically in the future, we need to identify potential solutions that future proof the Indian food system and ensure that it can deliver healthy and nutritious diets for all. Our new research presents one potential solution. Food systems are complex and there will never be a 'fix-all' solution, but our models suggest that modest dietary changes that are broadly beneficial for both the environment and health are a good place to start".
Saskia Heijnen, Portfolio Lead for Our Planet, Our Health at Wellcome said: "Over the last century water usage has increased at twice the rate of population growth. We're faced with the big problem of trying to produce more high quality food but with less resource. This research shows that a sustainable diet could be created with a few relatively simple changes to current trends and how this would help not only the planet, but the health of people as well."
More than half of the world's food is produced by small and medium farmers, particularly in Africa and Asia, said researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia. While large-scale plantation agriculture is expanding, small farms with less than 20 hectares of land should be protected because they produce more diverse and nutritious food, the study said. "It is vital that we protect and support small farms and more diverse agriculture so as to ensure sustainable and nutritional food production," Mario Herrero, the study's lead author, said in a statement. "Large farms, in contrast are less diverse." Big farms larger than 50 hectares dominate food production in the western hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand, producing more than three quarters of the cereals, livestock and fruit in those regions, the study said. In South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, small farms produce about 75 per cent of the food, the study said."
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