Food big influence on environmental footprints - GulfToday

Food big influence on environmental footprints

Meena Janardhan

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.

Representational image.

Representational image.

Food consumption patterns exert the greatest influence on the differences in environmental footprints of Indians, especially as high-income households spend more on food in restaurants and in social events, says a study recently published in the Ecological Economics journal, as reported by Mongabay-India (MI).

Titled ‘Water, air pollution and carbon footprints of conspicuous/luxury consumption in India’, this study analysed consumption data in India found stark differences in the water, particulate matter and carbon footprints between the poorest and richest households. Water footprint rises by six times, particulate matter doubles, carbon footprint sees an eight-fold rise for the latter, the MI report points out. it adds that the study underscores the significant influence of consumption patterns on environmental footprints. It finds that while basic food expenditure increases modestly among the wealthy, non-food and luxury spending escalates significantly. The gap between the richest 10% and the next 10% was found to be the widest among categories, emphasising the need for policies targeting reducing demand for luxury goods to mitigate environmental impact. It was also found that social pressures drive luxury expenditure among the affluent, while mass media influences spending habits among the poor and middle class. While education mitigates the influence of mass media, it does little to reduce the impact of affluent social networks on consumption choices.

The MI report points out in 2023, India stood as the third most polluted nation globally while also recording the highest wealth inequality in its history. The study underscores the connection between increasing expenditure by the wealthy and environmental impacts. In particular, the study examines the impact of consumption on water use, air pollution and carbon footprint. The study examined expenditure data per year per capita rather than income, looking at expenditure in deciles starting from Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 173,000. It finds that the per person annual expenditure rises by 17 times between the poorest to the richest families and with this, the carbon footprint sees an eight-fold rise, water footprint rises by six times, while particulate matter (PM2.5) footprint doubles. The comparatively less-steep rise of PM2.5 footprint is attributed to the use of fuelwood and other polluting biomass among poorer households for cooking.

The study finds that among the rich, the PM2.5 footprint is driven mostly by expenditure on personal goods such as luxury watches and high-end mobile phones followed by social functions and private transport. When it comes to the carbon footprint of the rich, social functions top the charts followed by expenditure on jewellery and ornaments, furniture and fixtures and personal transport. Being a consumer survey, this also does not include direct emissions by governments and businesses but accounts for them as embedded in the products consumed. Carbon emissions from India rank third in the global list, accounting for 2.83 billion tonnes of carbon, 7.6% of the total global carbon emissions. India’s per capita carbon emissions are, however, still low at 1.9 tonnes, compared to the United States’ 14.9 tonnes or global average of 4.7 tonnes. According to the study, the difference in expenditure on basic food, between the poorest and the richest families, increases in the latter by six times, while non-food expenditure rises by 26 times, and conspicuous and luxury expenditure shoots up by 47 times. Conspicuous and luxury expenditure includes any spending for pleasure-seeking or display of one’s social status.

The study highlights that food is the biggest source of environmental footprints among all households. Direct water usage makes up only 5-7% of the total water footprint as most of the water consumption comes embedded in food products. While subsistence items like rice and wheat, requiring heavy irrigation, make up the water footprints of the poor and middle class families, higher consumption of fruits and nuts do the same for the rich.

Researchers quoted by the MI report said that study shows that curbing consumption by the richest can reduce environmental impact. It will also free up ecological and developmental space for others because we have a finite carbon budget. There is a need for further research on connecting local and regional environmental footprints with the actual impacts, to better understand the relationships between conspicuous/luxury consumption and multi-dimensional environmental impacts in developing countries context.