At a Glance
- A study says obesity and climate change have common drivers and mitigating actions
- The drivers include food and agriculture, transportation, urban design, and land use.
- Public health policies must take an integrated approach to factors in climate change.
India has great disparities when it comes to food access: while 194 million people go hungry to bed daily, another 30 million are battling obesity. And now, a new challenge has been added to the mix: climate change.
Rising temperatures, variable rainfall, extreme weather events and loss of agricultural land due to droughts and floods are impacting food production, availability and access around the world. A 2011 FAO report quotes research predicting a 20% increase in global child malnutrition, compared to a world not weighed down by the burden of climate change.
Why India may be at risk of obesity
Undernutrition and obesity are two forms of malnutrition. Severe food insecurity is associated with lower obesity prevalence, but mild to moderate food insecurity is, paradoxically, associated with higher obesity prevalence among vulnerable populations living on marginal-quality diets and ultra-processed food products.
“Undernutrition in early life increases the risk of adult obesity,” says Dr Shifalika Goenka of the Delhi-based Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI). Dr. Goenka is a Commissioner with the Lancet Commission on Obesity, which recently issued a report titled ‘The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change’.
The word ‘syndemic’ here means a set of linked health problems—in this case obesity, under-nutrition and climate change—which exacerbates the burden of disease in a population.
But what does climate change have to do with India staring at a possible obesity crisis?
Dr. Goenka says, “Climate change will increase undernutrition through increased food insecurity from extreme weather events, droughts, and shifts in agriculture. Climate change also affects the prices of basic food commodities, especially fruits and vegetables, potentially increasing consumption of processed foods.”
The Lancet report is based on studies conducted across 14 countries, including India. The prevalence of overweight people in India’s adult population has more than doubled to 20.4% in 2016 from a mere 9% in 1990. The Commission is concerned that no country has been able to successfully reverse the obesity epidemic—and India’s case might be no different.
Four drivers of the syndemic
Since malnutrition goes hand in hand with climate change, bundling policy instruments to target both is the smart move.
The Lancet Commission identifies four major drivers of the syndemic: food and agriculture, transportation, urban design, and land use. Let’s look at each of these drivers.
Food and agriculture
Agricultural distress owing to climate change impacts the production, availability and access to basic food grains, fruits and vegetables. A rise in prices often forces people to switch to cheaper, less healthy and more, processed foods and beverages. Climate change also affects food quality, reducing the nutritional value of some popular crops. Elevated carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere potentially reduce the protein and mineral content of plant foods like wheat, rice and soybeans while raising their carbohydrate levels.
What’s worse, there is an exponential increase in consumption of non-seasonal and non-local farm products. Such fruits and vegetables, frozen for long periods and conveyed over thousands of miles, lose their nutritional value and emit large amounts of GHGs during storage and transportation.
The Lancet report also notes that the transition from low-income to higher income is often accompanied by rapid urbanisation and a shift towards motorised transport. This shift results in lower physical activity increased the risk of obesity and higher greenhouse gas emissions.
Switching to active or public transportation is environmentally sustainable and can help reduce an individual’s Body Mass Index (BMI). Says Dr Goenka, “An increase in the network, safety, connectivity and comfort of public transport is urgently required. Public transport is known to enhance health, lower obesity, and save on fossil fuels.” Transportation accountsfor approximately 14% of global GHGs.
Poor urban design contributes to an ‘obesogenic’ environments that lead to weight gain. The World Health Organization’s Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) 2013-2020 highlights that the absence of green spaces and safe infrastructure for people to walk and cycle inhibits physical exercise.
The WHO has also urged member states to focus on providing infrastructure to support active commuting. To simultaneously increase food security, promote healthier diets and reduce carbon footprint, the Lancet commission recommends upgrading marketplaces, appropriate infrastructure for local street food, and promoting urban agriculture.
Over the last few years, large swathes of forest land across India have been converted for agricultural, commercial, residential and other urban land use. Extensive deforestation inhibits carbon sequestration, causes soil erosion and fertility loss, and results in temperature rise, floods and landslides, and other weather extremes, all of which are associated with lower crop productivity in a particular region.
Deforestation also reduces biodiversity in the region, which affects our food supply. For example, by destroying certain plants, you reduce the number of pollinating bees, which affects honey production, causing prices to rise and so on. Increased monoculture farming (the practice of growing a single crop species, variety, or breed at a time) in recent years has also restricted the dietary choices for consumers while increasing farm emissions.
The Lancet Commission is scathing in its criticism of corporations and governments chasing profit and power, ignoring the public health and environmental damage caused by current food systems, transportation, urban design and land use. Renowned cardiologist Dr K Srinath Reddy, who heads the World Heart Foundation and PHFI says, “There is an urgent need for concerted root cause response which brings agriculture and food systems, transport industry and energy production into the common groove of sustainable development. From the availability and affordability of healthy foods to walkable, cycle-friendly streets and energy conserving mass transport, the agenda for action is clear. Governments and business cannot shrug their responsibility as health and environmental costs mount.”
There’s precious little we can do to change the agricultural realities and land use policies of our country. So, until the roads become wider and cycling paths are built, let’s make wiser food choices and get more active by walking and using public transportation wherever possible. It’s good for you—and for the planet.