Climate change often affects the poorest and most vulnerable communities. When there are droughts, floods or cyclones, of course everyone is affected, but very often it is the poorest who are hit the hardest. Droughts can stretch over a long period of time which means that people have less and less income and food. They live on a very subsistence diet over a long period of time and may lose on many basic entitlements. We saw during the Covid pandemic how the Public Distribution System (PDS) and mid-day meals in anganwadis and government/aided schools shut down with the government showing no urgency to restart education, leave alone the mid-day meal.
The quality of life of the victims of climate change also suffers, uncertainty levels are high and this affects mental health which is often seen as the prerogative of the rich. Many of those people who have a precarious existence may migrate intra or inter-state and therefore spend some part of their time in cities doing daily wage jobs and moving back to villages during harvest season to work as landless labourers. Being in this constant state of mobility affects their access to rations, health care, education and social security to name a few. Anganwadis and schools are often not flexible enough to accommodate children of migrant workers. When parents migrate, they may leave children with grandparents who may not be able to offer appropriate childcare on their own. Many of these children end up with malnutrition other health issues but these don’t often get picked up or addressed by the system which is largely oblivious to the poor and vulnerable. While healthcare in cities is expensive and privatized, it is largely unavailable in rural areas. The health system cannot even offer basic facilities which was evident during the pandemic.
On top of that, the government, media and even the healthcare system readily communalized the pandemic for political gain, thus losing crucial time preparing for the pandemic. There was discrimination in the provision of relief even during the pandemic and dalit communities faced further exclusion, violence and discrimination during the pandemic. There are instances of dominant caste groups refusing to stay with dalit communities. Instead of bureaucrats pulling up the oppressor caste groups for discriminating even during a national disaster, they mostly pander to the dominant caste whims. This behavior was well engrained even during ‘normal’ or non-Covid times. If oppressor caste groups threaten social boycott because of appointment of dalit cooks, teachers or anganwadi worker, their demands are prioritized by the bureaucracy over the labor rights and dignity of the dalit workers.
The problem with solutions to address climate change is that many of the solutions themselves further burden these same communities. Conflict of interest of those who push for corporate or multinational led solutions to global climate change is often set aside while already vulnerable communities are further criminalized or targeted.
Multinationals and large food corporations are using climate change as an excuse to push for problematic solutions which are unquestioningly internalized and practiced by most middle class and elite in both developing and developed countries. Now with food, we have the nexus between the vegan and the vegetarian. Already vegetarians were creating havoc with our nutrition and food security because caste operates very strongly. For example, one can look at data and just based on numbers understand that dalit and adivasi communities have worse outcomes in most health and nutrition indicators. However, even such ‘in your face’ data doesn’t influence decision making. Even if these so called decision makers express concern about what data throws up, their solutions are not at all scientific but largely based on personal prejudices – more on what their grandparents and parents tell them and less on any sound science. For instance, animal source foods are nutrient dense and, in adequate quantities, prevent people from going into different forms of malnutrition – underweight, stunting obesity etc.but the these foods are largely erased or criminalised.
Milk, incidentally, an animal source food and technically not ‘vegetarian’. ”Vegetarians” who eat nuts, milk, paneer, dahi, ghee etc. say ‘We are healthy because we eat vegetarian food.” They also believe that their little caste bubble is the entire country and say things like “Most of India is vegetarian anyway, so let’s make vegetarian policies’. However, the food that is budgeted for the poor is mainly cereal heavy, so vegetarian led decisions actually contribute to and aggravate the nutrition crisis in the country. They are however not held accountable for bad decisions which lead to malnutrition, ill-health or disability.
Industries are mostly unregulated. A pharma company like Biocon owned by businesswoman tycoon Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is often viewed as an asset, while KMS herself is seen as the spokesperson of several issues. Biocon was implicated for air pollution and ground water pollution making water unpotable. KMS as a glorified spokesperson from any topic ranging from Covid to street vendors had actually initiated a drive to evict street vendors even when they had a legal right to be there. While KMS is idolated as the star of Bengaluru, in other parts of the State, poor men transporting cattle for livelihood are attacked in public, filmed, maybe lynched and this is then publicised widely like a macabre war cry.
Akshaya patra, in the meantime, which is an initiative of the International Society for for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), has been bagging several contracts across the country to provide mid day meals to some of the poorest children in the country in government and aided schools. The casteist and unscientific approach to food and nutrition of this group is largely overlooked and the ones paying the price with their bodies are children who have least influence over decision making.
While on one hand, there are vegetarians pushing cheap vegetarianism on the country, on the other hand, billionaire led and funded groups like the EAT Lancet commission project India as a role model for how the rest of the world should eat.
How much of a model for the world is India’s vegetarianism then? In the Global Hunger Index 2019, the country ranks 102 out of 117, whereas data from the National Family Health Survey indicate that only 10% of the infants between 6–23 months are adequately fed. As a result, no less than 38% of the children under five years are stunted. About one on five women and men are underweight, with a similar proportion being either overweight or obese, especially in urban settings.
Anaemia affects almost 60% of the children aged 6-59 months, more than half of the women between 15-49 years, and almost one on four men in that same age group. Subclinical vitamin A deficiency in preschool children is 62% and is closely associated with malnutrition and poor protein consumption. Hardly a model to be followed!!
According to the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) 2016-18 , anaemia was most prevalent among scheduled tribes, followed by scheduled castes. More than half (53%) of pre-schoolers and more than one-third of school-age children and adolescents (38% each) belonging to scheduled tribes were anaemic. The prevalence of anaemia decreased steadily with an increase in household wealth in all three age groups. Overall, only 9% of children aged 6 to 23 months received iron-rich foods and this was influenced by the mother’s diet. Only six percent of all children aged 6 to 23 months were fed a minimum acceptable diet. The percentage increased slightly with higher levels of maternal schooling and household wealth
Prevalence of Vitamin A deficiency was 18% among preschool children, 22% among school age children and 16% among adolescents. Vitamin D deficiency was 14% among pre-school children, 18% in school age children and 24% in adolescents. Treating medically one nutrient deficiency will be soon be limited by another nutrient deficiency. For e.g. haemoglobin synthesis requires not just iron but good quality proteins and many other micronutrients as well (Dary 2011). Apart from iron, Vitamins A,C, E, B2, B6, B12,folate,Magnesium, selenium, zinc are needed for Hemoglobin synthesis. Only a diet that contains good quality proteins, vitamins and minerals will be able to address multiple nutrient deficiencies. Isolated nutritional deficiencies are unlikely in an undernourished population.
It is evident from the current dismal indicators around nutrition in the country, that isolated deficiencies are not the problem, but the poor access of most people to nutrient dense foods in adequate quantities. Addressing individual deficiencies with mandatory fortification is not a solution but only a way of routing public funds to the corporate sector.
Smallholders still dominate production in many developing countries. Livestock can provide income, quality food, fuel, draught power, building material and fertilizer, thus contributing to household livelihood, food security and nutrition. Cattle slaughter bans impacts people in adverse ways, both economically and nutritionally. Although cattle contribute a minuscule amount to overall climate change, they are projected as the primary source while giving the real polluters – automobile and industry, a wide rope. In India, the more unproductive cattle that roam around, the more the methane they generate. Methane is biodegradable and also has a relatively short life cycle of ten years compared to fossil fuels generated greenhouse gases from industry/automobiles etc. Indian public transport is so bad that literally everyone who has the resources will at least own a scooter or motorcycle. Each rich family may own 2-3 cars which could often be large SUVs, mostly unfit for Indian roads and contributing to enormous fuel wastage everytime they obstruct traffic. These vehicles or used even for short distances that could be covered by foot or a cycle, and often kept idling at signals.
India is already importing food stuffs into the country. What does that do to the environment? . To top it, now we are also importing premixes for food fortification which is neither sustainable nor environmentally friendly.
With the growth of the vegetarian and vegan fads, the consumption of nuts went up by almost 35% from 2012 and 2016. The shelling of cashews is done by hand in India, Brazil, Mozambique and Vietnam, by mostly women and young girls have reported painful injuries caused by cardol and anacardic acids that lie between two layers of hard shell of the cashew nut. The women are paid very little and also face many other forms of exploitation, poor wages, lack of job security, lack of access to health insurance protection etc.Cashew is promoted as a dairy free protein rich food to be used as creamy sauce on pasta dishes or as milk etc.
Very little food that is the mainstay of veganism is unprocessed. For instance, soya cannot just be grown locally and consumed locally. It requires extensive processing which again requires energy and also emits pollutants. Many of the local/indigenous crops in developing countries are being destroyed to create monocrops that make the soil less fertile. Yields continuously diminish, indigenous hardy crops are replaced by genetically modified crops that yield crop faster. The absence of nutrients in the soil and the shorter period of growth can adversely reduce the nutritional quality of foods. So you may be eating soya but it may not even have the nutrient density that soya grown in small quantities in coexistence with other plants and animals may have. To accommodate the growing demands of arable land, forests are cleared. The process of clearing forests is hugely detrimental to the environment and ecology. They are known to contribute to global warming, reduced availability of moisture/absorption of toxins from the air and water. Indigenous communities have been destroyed in thousands losing their access to the forest and its produce. They are basically dislocated and end up migrating, losing their cultural identities and social support networks. This long-term adverse impact of forced displacement has been well documented. So is that the responsibility of the vegan who provides the growing market for such foods?
The government has to increase investment into local food systems that includes animal source foods (meat, milk/dairy, eggs, poultry, fish), pulses, vegetables, legumes etc. as a way of improving sustainable food production as well as local livelihoods.