Home Story Food Security, Climate Change And Malnutrition Interlink

Food Security, Climate Change And Malnutrition Interlink

Evidence demonstrates that rising levels of CO2 reduce key nutrients in a wide variety of cereal and legume crops. Deficiency in these nutrients can cause a host of health and developmental issues, including stunted growth and lower cognitive abilities. Thus, food security, climate change, and malnutrition can no longer be addressed independent of one another
Shweta Khandelwal | Feb 26, 2020

Picture Credit: Tribhuvan Tiwari

Food security, climate-change, and malnutrition - our failure to recognize these major challenges and act upon them concurrently is worsening the situation with each passing day. Globally, around 45% of countries are experiencing a dual burden of malnutrition with coexisting undernutrition as well as overweight/obesity.

While approximately 2 billion individuals are overweight or obese, an estimated 821 million go hungry to bed each day. Both these forms of malnutrition grapple with high prevalence of multiple micronutrient deficiency too (2 billion people globally suffer from micronutrient deficiency or hidden hunger causing a loss of 63?million life-years annually).

Micronutrients play a decisive role in maintaining health, because they have an essential role in cognitive growth and development, in reproductive functions and cell metabolism, as also in immune system responses of humans. Further, poor diet is believed to have caused more than 11 million deaths in 2017. In middle-income countries like India, the situation is even more worrying with more than 37% of our children stunted, 21% wasted, even as rising overweight-obesity is adding to public health and nutrition woes.

The diet quality as revealed by the latest Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) of young children and adolescents showed that only 6.4% of children under two years get minimum acceptable diet in India.

Indian diets are transitioning away from staple foods, such as pulses and coarse cereals, to vegetable- and animal-based fats, and energy-dense, highly processed foods. Globally, these changes may increase the number of obese individuals from 1.33 billion in 2005 to 3.28 billion by 2030, with Asia leading in the transition from dietary energy insufficiency to excess.

In the wake of rapid climate change and deteriorating environmental conditions, several policy reports have highlighted that food production globally contributes to 19–29% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, 70% of freshwater withdrawals, and uses one-third of ice-free land.

Food systems will need to provide an estimated 60% more food by 2050 to feed a growing and more prosperous population. World Resources Institute 2017 report suggested that although per capita GHG emissions are relatively low, India is the 4th highest contributor to global GHG emissions, behind China, the US, and the EU.

Food systems—encompassing the production, processing, marketing, and purchase of food and the related consumer behaviour, resources and institutions — are increasingly struggling to deliver nutritious and healthy diets in an equitable manner.

In the backdrop of increasing population, accelerated migration to cities and rapidly transitioning dietary habits favouring more processed and animal-source based foods the challenges are expected to increase manifold. Climate change is expected to further exacerbate the problem.

Currently we get about 60% of our dietary protein, 80% of iron and 70% of zinc requirements from plants. Evidence demonstrates that rising levels of CO2 reduce key nutrients for human health, including zinc, iron and protein in a wide variety of cereal and legume crops. Deficiency in these nutrients can cause a host of health and developmental issues, including stunted growth and lower cognitive abilities.

Reports also note that by 2050, the vitamin B content of rice is expected to drop 17-30% (deficiencies in folate, thiamine (B1) and riboflavin (B2)). Climate changes are also responsible for changing the relationships between crops, pests, pathogens and weeds. It can also aggravate several trends, including decreasing pollinator insects, increasing water scarcity and ozone concentrations at ground level and reducing fishery levels.

Climate changes may also result in soil-related waterlogging complications causing altered/adverse soil mineral nutrient accessibility. Soil moisture may also get altered, which in turn can affect nutrient allocation. Strong interactions (both positive and negative) can be found between individual climatic factors and soil availability of nitrogen (N), potassium (K), iron (Fe) and phosphorous (P). It is expected that almost two billion people will be affected by almost complete water deficiency by the end of this century, and that close to 65% of the human population will be affected due to partial water insufficiency.

Food security, climate change, and malnutrition can no longer be addressed independent of one another. Integration of collaborative methods from distinct disciplines, innovation in analytical approaches and intersectoral policy analysis and engagement are essential to cement a holistic response. Collaboration can take the form of financial support, knowledge sharing, capacity building, etc., to improve production, distribution and storage of nutrient-rich crops, subsidies and taxes for relevant healthier foods, education on healthy diets, and regulating advertising and content of processed food.

Ensuring that masses have access to plentiful, safe and nutritious food may need to rely on breeding for nutrients under the context of climate change, including legumes in cropping systems, better farm management practices and utilization of microbial inoculants that enhance nutrient availability.

Other strategies may include: leveraging resources, aligning multi-sectoral processes to reduce food wastage, use of improved technology for better quality and quantity of yields, research for breeding CO2 tolerant crop strains, bio-fortification and supplementation, combining adaptation and mitigation strategies to strengthen food security resilience. It is important to tap into ancestral and local knowledge and see how best those could be customized in modern times. A comprehensive and coordinated response using the above, for sustainable, safe and malnutrition free (kuposhan mukt Bharat) India is urgently warranted in the interest of public health and nutrition.


(The writer is Head, Nutrition Research and Additional Professor, PHFI)