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Climate change and cuisine: navigating food choices for a sustainable future

In recent times, the global conversation surrounding climate change has intensified, highlighting the urgency to address the environmental challenges we face. One crucial aspect often overlooked in this discourse is the significant role of cuisine and food choices in contributing to climate change. With India, being renowned for its rich culinary heritage, it is imperative that we acknowledge the significant role our food choices play in shaping the future of our planet. A new study published in Nature Food estimates that the food system is responsible for one-third (which is nearly 34%) of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, the food we consume has a  profound impact on the environment and our food choices can either contribute to or mitigate climate change. 

In order to devise effective mitigation strategies, it is vital to understand the multifaceted components that constitute the food system. The journey of food from farm to plate involves a series of interconnected processes such as farming, harvesting or fishing, transportation, processing, packaging, distribution, cooking, and waste disposal. Each stage requires energy production and allocation to ensure seamless operations at the right time and place. EDGAR-FOOD is a global food emissions database developed by the European Union's Joint Research Centre to estimate greenhouse gas emissions for the years 1990-2015. Statistically speaking, it offers a trove of data enabling granular tracking of ongoing and future trends providing critical guidance for holistic mitigation efforts. To secure a sustainable future, it is essential to further explore the intersection of climate change and cuisine, understanding how our food choices can contribute to mitigating environmental damage and promoting resilience.

The interlinking challenges facing food and climate: Climate change affects crops, livestock, soil, water resources and vulnerable people, especially agricultural labourers. Agricultural production has doubled in the past 40 years, and food supply chains have been globalised, leading to increased amounts of greenhouse gases causing climate change, which in turn results in reduced food production. Out of the total food production, four value chains, namely beef, milk, rice, and maize, are responsible for nearly 65% of total food system emissions. Rice cultivation, which is a staple diet in most countries, contributes its  fair share of greenhouse gases.   A review published on PubMed states that around 30% and 11% of global agricultural methane and nitrous oxide, respectively, are emitted from rice fields. Additionally, livestock contributes approximately 14.5 % of global greenhouse gas emissions annually. Remarkably, this is equivalent to the emissions produced by all cars, trucks, aeroplanes and ships worldwide combined.

When contemplating the aforementioned contributions of our food systems to climate change, it becomes imperative that we move towards a more holistic approach, embracing sustainable agricultural practices such as regenerative farming techniques, organic farming, agroforestry, and permaculture  Such practices promote soil health, reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers, and sequester carbon thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Apart from transforming agricultural practices, we need to reflect upon the significance of our food choices. There is an urgent need for a profound transformation in how we both produce and consume our sustenance. For example, to  reduce the ecological impact, livestock can be raised on land unsuitable for crop cultivation and consume crop residues that would otherwise go to waste. Additionally, their manure can be utilized as fertilizers. India's farm sector contributes to 14% of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions. With over 535.78 million livestock, India possesses the world's largest cattle population as per the 20th Livestock Census in 2019. While the Lancet report indicates that meat consumption in India might be lower compared to other populous nations, it still highlights that a significant portion of the global population consumes more meat than necessary for a healthy diet. Livestock alone accounts for 78% of India's 24 million tonnes of methane emissions. However, livestock serves multiple purposes beyond meat production, such as providing milk and dairy products, and their hides. India's position as one of the top exporter of animal hide and having the world's largest dairy herd underscores the importance of a balanced approach to livestock management.

Another major contributor to climate change is food waste, with discarded food responsible for as much as 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions are directly influenced by solid waste, as it gives rise to methane through the anaerobic decay of waste in landfills and the release of nitrous oxide from solid waste combustion facilities. The challenge of food waste in the food supply chain can be addressed through a range of solutions. Implementing food recovery programs, waste segregation at source, promoting composting practices, conducting consumer education campaigns and focusing on reducing food loss during production, processing and distribution are key strategies for waste reduction

Additionally,  we need to embrace innovative initiatives that can further contribute to building a sustainable food system with minimised waste. One way this can be done is by prioritizing the sourcing of food locally and consuming seasonal produce. Foods that travel long-distances  to reach our plates significantly contribute to environmental impact. The transportation, refrigeration, and storage of such food require extensive energy consumption, while the need for additional packaging to maintain freshness further exacerbates the issue. Apart from reducing the ecological impact, sourcing food locally and consuming seasonal produce can provide many other benefits, including fresher and better-tasting food, support for local economies, a greater variety of foods and preservation of regional agricultural diversity.

One area that holds immense promise in shaping sustainable food systems is technological advancements that facilitate addressing resource consumption, land use and efficiency in food production. Several innovative approaches, such as precision agriculture, vertical farming and hydroponics, have emerged as potential solutions to achieve these objectives. Moreover, the remarkable progress in data analytics, automation and robotics is ushering in a transformative era of enhanced efficiency and productivity within our food systems. This technological revolution empowers us to optimize supply chains, minimise food waste and amplify resource utilisation through real-time monitoring and analysis. 

Furthermore, the year 2023 is designated as the International Year of Millets by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) with the support of 72 countries, in response to India's proposal. In addition to their nutritional value, millets play a crucial role in sustainable agriculture. Their low resource requirements make them an ideal crop for small-scale farmers and those practicing organic and regenerative farming techniques. By incorporating millets into crop rotations and diversifying agriculture, we can enhance soil health, reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers, and sequester carbon, further reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, transitioning to millets is not only a nutritious choice but also a promising strategy to tackle climate change and promote a more sustainable and resilient food system.

In conclusion, the intertwined relationship between climate change and cuisine illuminates the profound influence our food choices hold in addressing the environmental challenges we face. Through championing sustainable agriculture, prioritizing local sourcing, curbing food waste and harnessing technological advancements and embracing the revival of millets we can chart a course towards a sustainable future guided by conscious culinary decisions. It is of utmost importance that individuals, businesses and policymakers unite in a collaborative effort to cultivate a food system that thrives with resilience, fosters regeneration and harmonises with the delicate balance of our planet's ecosystems. We need to acknowledge that even small changes in our food choices can have a collective and significant impact on the sustainability of our food systems. By making mindful and sustainable food choices, we can contribute to a healthier planet and a more equitable and resilient food future while nurturing both ourselves and the generations to come.

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