While growing up in a vegetarian family, I saw my mother face the big question for most non-meat eating families: How do we get adequate protein? Pulses, yes, but how do we get more? I know of several mothers who moved their children to meat-based diets only because they believed these were more protein-rich. Back then, there was little awareness on how plants can also be an adequate source of protein.
Do you know that one plate of butter chicken-rice costs us almost 3,000 litres of water? Rearing livestock and poultry for food and over-cultivation of water guzzling cash crops is impacting the environment. What India needs is a holistic approach to the issue — affordable nutrition and commercially profitable agriculture that are environmentally clean and leave minimum impact on natural resources.
The Collins Dictionary named “Climate Strike” the word of the year in 2019. Never before have we had so many strong voices across the world on climate change. The pressure on governments and policy makers is high. Policy discussions regularly feature the term “climate change” or “environmental impact”. Even as governments are introducing policies that curtail pollution, companies are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprints. But industry isn’t the biggest contributor to environmental pollution. The truth is that livestock — cows, sheep, chicken — and animal farming activity for food produce more pollution than all the planes and cars in the world combined. “Farming activity”, which includes raising livestock, was dubbed the single largest contributor to pollution in Europe.
While nearly 70 per cent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5 per cent is fresh water. The rest is saline and ocean-based. Even then, just 1 per cent of our freshwater is easily accessible, with much of it trapped in glaciers and snowfields. In essence, only 0.007 per cent of the planet's water is available to fuel and feed its 6.8 billion people.
Water is a limited precious resource. Who knows this better than our famers who struggle with low ground water and inclement weather. This year, more than 54 lakh hectares of agricultural produce has been wiped out in Maharashtra because of unseasonal rains. This is aggravated by the fact that ground water has been depleting with most of India still using older forms of irrigation methods. At the onset of winter, Delhi gets engulfed in dense smoke with the burning of paddy stubs, another conventional farming practice that is impacting the environment.
Farmers need to be encouraged to choose crops wisely — India produces more than 120 million tons of rice a year with the government ensuring purchase with good MSP and incentives to grow the crop. On the flip side, paddy consumes between 3,000 to 5,000 litres of water to produce just 1 kg of rice. Other water-guzzling but cash-rich crops like rice, cotton, soybean, wheat and sugarcane need between 500 litres to 5,000 litres for 1 kg. On the other hand, crops like millets, lentils and pulses take half or less than half the amount of water for the same output. These are also rich sources of protein which makes them a sustainable alternative to water-intensive farming.
I recently spoke at a conference organised by the Good Food Institute called the ‘future of protein’. The conference had two panels dedicated to plant-based proteins which can be produced through climate and farmer friendly crops such as ragi, amaranth and millets. These panels highlighted the importance of creating value chains and market linkages for these products. While the Green Revolution focused on rice and wheat, the need of the hour now is a new revolution — one that focuses on the environment, development and farmer welfare. With a focus on producing environmentally friendly crops, the next revolution can ensure that farmers are motivated to move to crops that consume less water, while ensuring their protection and a steady source of income.
There is an added bonus to the greater availability of crops that are kinder to the environment — cleaner eating habits. Being vegetarian is the best thing you can do to you body. Development, climate change and farmer welfare have to go hand in hand — they cannot and must not be looked at in silos. The Government of India, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, is putting emphasis on the National Nutrition Mission or the Poshan Abhiyan, which seeks to bring these three crucial issues together. It is imperative that we create policy solutions that balance these.
The best way forward is to work backwards from what’s on your plate. As we stand at the brink of a new green revolution, cultivating plant-based protein sources like millets and legumes is our toolkit for an environmentally clean and sustainable agricultural movement.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 14, 2019 under the title 'Food for the future'. The writer is national president, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha and an MP.