India ranks lowest in food sustainability

India ranks last among the 25 countries that were ranked according to their food system, as per a report by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition and the Economist Intelligence Unit. The report ‘Fixing food – towards a more sustainable food system’ uses the Food Sustainability Index (FSI) and reports on the food system sustainability globally, spanning agriculture, nutrition, and food loss and waste. The report indicates that uneven access to adequate nutrition, resource depletion and other environmental challenges necessitate an urgent rethink on food production and consumption.

The group of 20 largest economies that includes India also called G-20, plus five nations from regions otherwise unrepresented were ranked. The FSI represents 85 percent of the world economy and 72 percent of the world population. For the purposes of this study, sustainability refers to the ability of the food system to be maintained without depletion and exhaustion of its natural resources or compromises to its health and integrity.

The objective of the FSI was fourfold: (a) to highlight the performance of countries (b) to establish a comparable benchmark (c) to offer examples of best practices at the national and city levels and (d) to measure progress over time. The FSI is a tool for policymakers and experts to orient their action, for students to be educated, and for the public to conscientiously adjust their behaviour for the good of our health and our planet. Food, nutrition, and sustainability are integral components of the SDGs that represent the framework upon which the FSI is based. Immediate action is needed to tackle climate change and ensure sustainable agriculture, to improve nutrition and well-being in developing and developed countries, and to address food loss and waste.

The world’s food system is facing unprecedented challenges. The global population is set to reach 8.1 billion in 2025, with 95 percent of population growth driven by developing countries. The food system must ensure this growing population has access to the nutrition it needs to flourish, especially as climate change re-shapes agricultural production. This means tackling the twin nutritional challenges facing the world: hunger and nutrient deficiencies, along with unhealthy diets and obesity.

The international community must also reduce the environmental damage caused by agriculture, in terms of emissions, ground pollution and deforestation, and tackle the scourge of food loss and food waste. Millions of tonnes of food are lost or wasted every year at the farm, retailer and consumer level.

Collectively these problems were reflected in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2013 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Six of these SDGs clearly highlight the central role of food and nutrition to many of the key development indicators from health and wellbeing through to inequality, sustainability and environmental protections. To attain the SDGs related to food and nutrition, wide-ranging reforms, investments and innovations will be needed. This includes fighting food waste and food loss, promoting knowledge and technology-sharing practices for agricultural producers, investing in farm-to-market infrastructures in developing countries, and advancing research and development (R&D) into new techniques and technologies to improve yield and lower environmental impact.

France, Japan and Canada lead the 25 countries in the overall ranking. France in particular tops the categories of food loss and waste, supported by a holistic policy response, and prevails against nutritional challenges, lifted by the high nutrition levels of its population. In contrast, India, Egypt and Saudi Arabia lag furthest behind, with India receiving the lowest overall score, in addition to putting forth the weakest results in nutritional challenges and sustainable agriculture.

India’s food system faces the most severe challenges of the group. India scores bottom of the ranking, with serious problems across all three pillars of the index. The most notable deficits are its unsustainable water usage trends, low-quality agricultural subsidies, and very poor nutritional outcomes, with high levels of stunting, underweight, and micronutrient deficiency, among children especially.

India has shot up the global obesity rankings but also suffers a significant prevalence of underweight women and men. India is now home to more than one-third of the world’s stunted children, but obesity is on the rise in the middle and affluent classes. As early as 2002 researchers observed a “parallel rise in malnutrition and obesity”, in which neither the rich nor the poor were eating well. Studies found that between 1996 and 2006 the prevalence of underweight remained high, while overweight and obesity among women of reproductive age rose. In the FSI, India has the lowest score for the prevalence of undernourishment and malnourishment and the second-lowest score for micronutrient deficiency.

Four key considerations emerge from this research –

  • The world produces plenty of food; inefficiencies in the food system are the primary challenges to tackle, including food loss and waste. There are limited land resources left to exploit, given the challenges of deforestation and land degradation. This means that the public, companies, stakeholders and governments must work harder to reduce food loss and waste, through well-designed policies, incentives, public education programmes, and media-friendly awareness-raising initiatives.
  • Ensuring that the food we already grow does reach people can reduce how much new land is needed for crops and foods. The food retail industry can help through several measures: clearer expiration dates on produce, partnerships with charities to donate excess foods, and use of food waste as fuel are among the measures used by the leading companies.
  • Legislation, following France’s lead, will help ensure these are not disparate and one-off initiatives but part of a comprehensive strategy to slash waste. Food loss in developing countries comes from different sources, including poor road and transport systems, inadequate access to cool-chain technologies, and vulnerability to shocks such as pests and droughts.
  • Agriculture is threatening the world’s forests and water supplies. Rates of deforestation have fallen globally, thanks to initiatives to regulate the logging sector. But increasing agricultural commodities output for food and non-food production is threatening this progress, with deforestation advancing to clear land to cultivate a range of crops and foods. Palm oil, soybeans, and beef, as well as non-food crops for biofuels, are particularly prominent drivers. Stakeholders must make careful choices about the further expansion of agricultural land, especially for non-food crops used for biofuels. Secondly, the world is facing increasing water stress, and not just in arid countries. Agricultural producers and governments must improve water management practices, including greater water recycling, and reduce the water footprint of crops and livestock.

The full report can be downloaded here

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