Will India be witnessing famine on a massive scale by 2050? A lack of groundwater could mean yes. However, switching to a vegetarian diet could stave this off, claims a recent study published in The Lancet.
Groundwater sources are being depleting faster than they can replenish. This can be partially attributed to irrigation and sewage systems. In India, depletion is highest in areas of high agricultural output. In India, this huge amount of loss of groundwater is entirely unsustainable. Within a few decades, it could have devastating effects: a country with a population numbering over 1.2 billion, must is expected to produce a vast amount of food to avoid shortages.
Specific diets deplete groundwater levels at faster rates, due to the methods of food production utilised to provide for those diets. Large scale societal diet changes have been studied in the past, often with the aim of reducing greenhouse emissions. For the most part, the exact same concepts apply here. Changes such as a reduction in meat consumption would preserve groundwater.
This is due to the need for agricultural land to grow feed for the animals. It would be much more efficient to use this land to grow crops that can be used to feed people. Therefore, a shift to a largely vegetarian diet uses less groundwater overall.
The study, however, does not recommend a total shift to vegetarianism. Rather, it calls for a more balanced diet, cutting down on specific foodstuffs and crops. For example, eating red meat, as opposed to poultry, would use less groundwater, as cows and goats graze instead of relying on animal feed. However red meat is considered less healthy than poultry and, according to other research, has much worse effects on climate change.
Crops such as wheat and rice require an irrigation system to grow efficiently, thus depleting groundwater, and so should be swapped out for vegetables and pulses.
Some suggest that improved farming standards or a shift in crops grown will not alter the situation. What stands in the way of this is public demand; while people still wish to buy a product, it will remain profitable.
States such as Uttar Pradesh are conducting a crackdown on slaughterhouses. The intention of the drive is a removal of illegal slaughterhouses, as well as tighter regulations on those that follow the law. The move is highly controversial, placing jobs at risk on a mass scale, however if groundwater were to drop excessively in the future, this manner of intervention would become a necessity.
The only way for the situation to be resolved is a large scale shift in diets claim experts such as Veena Srinivasan, of Bangalore’s Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE). To avoid mass public food and water shortages, this may be a small price to pay, with the added benefits of the reduction in greenhouse emissions and the potential to increase public health through a focus on the consumption of healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables.