Food vs. Biodiversity: Unbelievable! Idli-Rajma threat to biodiversity

Meat, lentil, and grain-based dishes are a major cause of biodiversity loss, especially in India, where there is already a high demand for agricultural products. Experts urge us to reevaluate our food choices in the interest of the planet

Update: 2024-03-02 19:25 GMT

Who doesn’t love hot, steaming idlis for breakfast or a tasty rajma (kidney beans) for lunch? All of us do. But now, a study suggests that the two favourites are among the 25 dishes that are causing damage to biodiversity. Surprised? After all, what would the humble idli, rajma, chana masala, and chicken jalfrezi do to biodiversity? Let’s find out.

Transforming food system

If the world is to accomplish our ambitious and essential goals for climate, ecology, and people, then we must transform our food systems. The way that humans grow and eat will define our future. In the face of alarming declines in biodiversity driven by human activities, the rise of vegan products such as idly and rajma presents a paradoxical challenge, says Dr Rennie Joyy, founder of the Aalekh Foundation, renowned for its environmental dedication.

“While idli, a byproduct of rice, is often considered a sustainable choice, its production contributes to land use changes and the depletion of natural habitats,” she explains. Similarly, the cultivation of rajma (kidney beans) raises concerns about agricultural expansion and the environmental impact of monoculture farming practices.

“As consumers embrace veganism for its perceived ethical and environmental benefits, it’s crucial to recognise the complex relationship between food choices and biodiversity conservation,” Dr Rennie points out.

While meat eating contributes to biodiversity loss through deforestation for livestock grazing, habitat destruction, and overexploitation of wildlife populations, the intensive farming practices associated with meat production often lead to habitat degradation, species extinction, and disruption of ecosystems, ultimately threatening the delicate balance of biodiversity on our planet, she says.

Broader ecological consequences

Dr Ekta Singhwal, M.Sc. Dietician, Ujala Cygnus Group of Hospitals, says the emphasis on the environmental impact of various dishes, especially those containing meat, aligns with the broader understanding that excessive meat consumption is associated with health issues such as cardiovascular diseases and obesity.

“Healthcare professionals often advocate for balanced and sustainable diets to promote individual health. Now, this study adds another dimension by highlighting the broader ecological consequences of our food choices,” she says, adding that it prompts healthcare experts to consider not only the nutritional aspects of diets but also the environmental footprint associated with different foods.

“The surprising inclusion of seemingly healthy and vegetarian dishes like idli and rajma in the list serves as a reminder that even plant-based choices can have environmental implications,” says Dr Ekta.

This insight can be integrated into healthcare advice, encouraging individuals to adopt not only healthy but also environmentally conscious dietary habits. “Incorporating sustainability into healthcare discussions may lead to a more comprehensive approach to well-being, addressing both personal health and the health of the planet,” says Dr Ekta.

She feels it emphasises the role of healthcare professionals in promoting awareness about the environmental impact of dietary choices and guiding individuals towards more sustainable and health-supportive eating patterns.

Diversity loss is apparent

There is no magic bullet when it comes to addressing climate change and protecting the environment, but agriculture is the one industry with some hope. To stop agriculture-commodity-driven deforestation and habitat loss, we must adopt a comprehensive food systems strategy and collaborate.

Dr E.D. Israel Oliver King, an ethnobotanist and director of biodiversity at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), feels the diversity loss is apparent because it’s always a demand-driven process.

“So when the markets, research and technology, and public policy that drive very few crops or the consumer’s food preferences and choices depend on very few crops, obviously that will have an impact on biodiversity, particularly agro-biodiversity, which in turn impacts nutrition,” he says.

Therefore, says Dr Israel, there is a need for food diversification, something that is being discussed worldwide. “There is a global manifesto on forgotten foods that talks about the bottom-up approach (MSSRF is also part of that consortium). It talks of having community action across India. MSSRF is keen on working with different communities on issues like crop and food diversity,” he informs. With regards to agriculture research, he feels an inclusive approach should be adopted where the voices of the community and the stakeholders in the food chain need to be taken into consideration.

The surprising inclusion of seemingly healthy and vegetarian dishes like idli and rajma in the list serves as a reminder that even plant-based choices can have environmental implications. — Dr Ekta Singhwal, M.Sc. Dietician, Ujala Cygnus Group of Hospitals

As consumers embrace veganism for its perceived ethical and environmental benefits, it’s crucial to recognise the complex relationship between food choices and biodiversity conservation. — Dr Rennie Joyy, founder of the Aalekh Foundation

There is a global manifesto on forgotten foods that talks about the bottom-up approach (MSSRF is also part of that consortium). — Dr E.D. Israel Oliver King, ethnobotanist, director of biodiversity, MSSRF

Mantou and Chinese steamed bun, both manufactured from starchy ingredients like potato and wheat, were discovered to have the lowest biodiversity footprints.

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