By Edward Joy, Research Fellow in Nutrition and Sustainability at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
We know that our diet and the food we eat affects our health. However, we know less about how the food we eat drives changes in the environment, which can further impact our health. For example, some crops and livestock require a lot of water to maintain and increasing consumption of these food items may affect drinking water quality or availability.
The Sustainable and Healthy Diets in India (SAHDI) project aims to quantify the effects of dietary choices in India on both human health and the environment. As part of the project, we are working with local schools to provide engaging educational resources for children to learn more about how food choices impact their health and the environment.
We visited two contrasting schools in Gurgaon, a city just south of New Delhi, India. The first was a government school where children from two classes squeezed together on the benches and desks. Most children were aged 10–12 years but there was probably a wider age range since progress through the grades is dependent on exam results. The majority of students could follow in English but it helped when our colleague from the Public Health Foundation of India repeated in Hindi. The second school was a private school with notable improvements in classroom equipment and a smaller teacher:pupil ratio. The children were also aged 10–12 and all could follow comfortably in English. The school visits provided a fascinating glimpse of the variation in educational facilities in urban India, though even the children in government schools were relatively fortunate.
The children were enthusiastic and well-behaved and, in spite of the differences in resources, the students at both schools had an impressive knowledge about healthy diets. They easily identified healthy food with high vitamin A content and knew all about sugar and diabetes. They politely humoured us visitors who didn’t expect such expert knowledge! Interestingly, our classroom sessions stuttered when we talked about the wider impacts of food choices. The children were unfamiliar with the links between food choices and the environment, such as water use. Once we discussed it however, they became quite interested and the teachers were keen to develop this area further and incorporate it into the student’s education.
Agriculture is the largest user of fresh water in India, primarily through irrigation which allows farmers to produce 2–3 crops per year and mitigates the potential impacts of drought. But many areas of India, including the states surrounding New Delhi, are facing severe water scarcity that is partly due to decades of increasing irrigation. This is one of many challenges in India that highlights the impacts of current food production on future food security and health. Moving forward, new technological advances, such as conservation agriculture, and relatively minor changes to our diets, will be required to tackle these challenges. Today, sitting in a classroom somewhere in India, are the future ministers of agriculture and health, business leaders, and researchers who will need to find and implement these solutions. It is therefore important that children understand the immediate and long-term impacts their food choices have on their health and the environment and how the two are linked.
The eagerness of both the students and their teachers to learn and participate was encouraging and it has inspired us to develop new schools engagement plans that incorporate citizen science initiatives where the students will actively take part in conducting scientific research through collecting and analysing scientific data. We were also delighted after our visit to receive a poem written by one of the students. We might have just met a future head of public health communications!:
Professors from London School talked about healthy and unhealthy food and malnutrition,
Which was anti-boring and mega-fun!
They talked about oily and fast foods, which makes one’s belly bigger,
And they talked about sustainable diets and the environment which are important for the future!
WHO is doing the same as the Professors.
WHO talks about the world’s health,
And there they endorse the point which is called, “health is wealth”;
So guys, follow the rules of healthy eating and healthy living seriously,
Then you will be normal and fit, that I can guarantee!
(R. Agrawal, aged 11, Gurgaon, India).
The Sustainable and Healthy Diets in India (SAHDI) project brings together an inter-disciplinary team led by Dr Alan Dangour () at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine with members from the Public Health Foundation of India and the University of Aberdeen with funding from the Wellcome Trust. The team is analysing relationships between typical dietary patterns in India, consumers’ health and the environment using existing data on agriculture and diets.
Images: School students aged 10-12 participating in an activity on healthy and sustainable diets. Credit: Edward Joy