Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

India has natural resource capacity to achieve nutrition security, reduce health risks and improve environmental sustainability


Sustainable development of India’s food system must ensure a growing population is fed while minimizing both widespread malnutrition and the environmental impacts of food production. After assessing current adequacy of nutrient supplies at the national level, associated natural resource use (land, fresh water) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we apply an integrated subnational environmental and nutritional optimization approach to explore resource constraints that might limit the achievement of national food self-sufficiency goals. We find that India currently has the capacity to produce sufficient amounts of nutritious foods, supplying vitamins and minerals that would mostly exceed requirements. Regional cropland use could be reduced by up to 50%, water demand by up to 65% and combined resource inputs by up to 40% while still supporting adequate nutrition. Associated GHG emissions would decline by 26–34% and could possibly be sequestered in agroforestry systems. Such dietary shifts could lower the number of diet-related premature deaths by 14–30%. Achieving these potential gains, however, would require a major transition from current production and consumption patterns, particularly of refined cereals, to free-up resources for more traditional and nutritious foods.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Current average food supply (A) versus potential optimized food supply (P).
Fig. 2: Relative potential regional reductions of irrigation water (W), cropland (L) and combined resource use (C).
Fig. 3: Micronutrient supply of average, potential maximized and potential under resource-constrained diets.
Fig. 4: Reduction in deaths as a result of improved food supply.

Data availability

The data supporting the findings of this study are available within the article and its Supplementary Information.

Code availability

Code used for this study is included in the Supplementary methods.


  1. FAO Statistical Database (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2011–2013);

  2. National Food Security Bill Registered Number DL-(N)04/0007/2003-13 (Government of India, Ministry of Law and Justice, 10 September 2013).

  3. Bhattacharyya, R. et al. Soil degradation in India: challenges and potential solutions. Sustainability 7, 3528–3570 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Khajuria, A. Impact of nitrate consumption: case study of Punjab, India. J. Water Resour. Prot. 8, 211–216 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Davis, K. F. et al. Alternative cereals can improve water use and nutrient supply in India. Sci. Adv. 4, eaao1108 (2018).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Caulfield, L. E. in Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries 2nd edn (eds Jamison, D. T., et al.) Ch. 28 (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank, 2006).

  7. Green, R. et al. Dietary patterns in India: a systematic review. Br. J. Nutr. 116, 142–148 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Naik, S., Mahalle, N. & Bhide, V. Identification of vitamin B12 deficiency in vegetarian Indians. Br. J. Nutr. 119, 1–7 (2018).

  9. DeFries, R. et al. Impact of historical changes in coarse cereals consumption in India on micronutrient intake and anemia prevalence. Food Nutr. Bull. 39, 377–392 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Smith, M. R. et al. Inadequate zinc intake in India: past, present, and future. Food Nutr. Bull. 40, 26–40 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. India: National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), 2015–16 (International Institute for Population Sciences, 2017).

  12. Akhtar, S. et al. Prevalence of vitamin A deficiency in South Asia: causes, outcomes, and possible remedies. J. Health Popul. Nutr. 31, 413–423 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. India: Health of the Nation’s States—The Indian State-Level Disease Burden Initiative (Indian Council of Medical Research, Public Health Foundation of India and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 2017).

  14. Riahi, K. et al. The shared socioeconomic pathways and their energy, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions implications: an overview. Glob. Environ. Change 42, 153–168 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Sengupta, P. & Mukhopadhyay, K. Economic and environmental impact of National Food Security Act of India. Agric. Food Econ. 4, 1–23. (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Rao, N. D. et al. Healthy, affordable and climate-friendly diets in India. Glob. Environ. Change 49, 154–165 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Vetter, S. H. et al. Greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural food production to supply Indian diets: Implications for climate change mitigation. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 237, 234–241 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Harris, F. et al. The water use of Indian diets and socio-demographic factors related to dietary blue water footprint. Sci. Total. Environ. 587–588, 128–136 (2017).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Davis, K. F. et al. Assessing the sustainability of post-Green Revolution cereals in India. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 116, 25034–25041 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Milner, J. et al. Projected health effects of realistic dietary changes to address freshwater constraints in India: a modelling study. Lancet Planet. Health 1, e26–e32 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Aleksandrowicz, L. et al. A modelling study using nationally-representative data. Environ. Int. 126, 207–215 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Green, R. et al. Greenhouse gas emissions and water footprints of typical dietary patterns in India. Sci. Total. Environ. 643, 1411–1418 (2018).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Ritchie, H. et al. Sustainable food security in India—domestic production and macronutrient availability. PLoS ONE 13, e0193766 (2018a).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Ritchie, H. et al. Quantifying, projecting, and addressing India’s hidden hunger. Front. Sustain. Food Sys. 2, 11 (2018b).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Springmann, M. et al. Health and nutritional aspects of sustainable diet strategies and their association with environmental impacts: a global modelling analysis with country-level detail. Lancet Planet. Health 2, e451–e461 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Household Consumption of Various Goods and Service in India 2011–12. NSS 68th Round (Government of India, 2014).

  27. Rosa, L. et al. Closing the yield gap while ensuring water sustainability. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 104002 (2018).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. Mason-D’Croz, D. et al. Gaps between fruit and vegetable production, demand, and recommended consumption at global and national levels: an integrated modelling study. Lancet Planet. Health 3, e318–e329 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Sapkota, T. P. et al. Cost-effective opportunities for climate change mitigation in Indian agriculture. Sci. Total. Environ. 655, 1342–1354 (2019).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Willett, W. et al. Food in the anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet Comm. 393, P447–P492 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Ahmad, F., Uddin, Md. M., Goparaju, L., Rizvi, J. & Biradar, C. Quantification of the land potential for scaling agroforestry in South Asia. J. Cartogr. Geogr. Inf. 70, 81–89 (2020).

  32. Sharma, B. et al. Comparative study of mango based agroforestry and mono-cropping system under rainfed condition of West Bengal. Int. J. Plant. Soil. Sci. 15, 1–7 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  33. Chirwa, P. W. et al. Tree and crop productivity in gliricidia/maize/pigeonpea cropping systems in southern Malawi. Agrofor. Syst. 59, 265–277 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Chiuve S. E. et al. Alternative dietary indices both strongly predict risk of chronic disease. J. Nutr. 142, 1009–1018 (2012).

  35. Wang, D. D. et al. Global improvement in dietary quality could lead to substantial reduction in premature death. J. Nutr. 149, 1065–1074 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Pingali, P., Aiyar, A., Abraham, M. & Rahman, A. Transforming Food Systems for a Rising India (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2019).

  37. Bowen, L. et al. Dietary intake and rural–urban migration in India: a cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE 6, e14822 (2010).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  38. Singh, al. Quantitative estimates of dietary intake with special emphasis on snacking pattern and nutritional status of free living adults in urban slums of Delhi: impact of nutrition transition. BMC Nutr. 1, (2015)..

  39. Rawal, V. et al. Prevalence of undernourishment in Indian states: explorations based on NSS 68th round data. Econ. Polit. Wkly 54, 35–45 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  40. The Global Dietary Database—Global Dietary Intakes, Diseases, and Policies among Children, Women, and Men (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2016);

  41. Demographic Statistics Database (United Nations Statistics Division, accessed September 2018);

  42. Lonnie, M. et al. Protein for life: Review of optimal protein intake, sustainable dietary sources and the effect on appetite in ageing adults. Nutrients 10, 360 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Longvah, T. et al. Indian Food Composition Tables (National Institute of Nutrition, 2017).

  44. Food Composition Database (United States Department of Agriculture, 2016);

  45. Human Vitamin and Mineral Requirements. Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation, Bangkok, Thailand (World Health Organization, 2001).

  46. Nutrient Index (Oregon State University, 2018);

  47. Statistical Year Book India 2018 (Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, 2019).

  48. Suresh, K. P. et al. Modeling and forecasting livestock feed resources in India using climate variables. Asian-Aust J. Anim. Sci. 25, 462–470 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  49. Mekonnen, M. M. & Hoekstra, A. Y. National Water Footprint Accounts: The Green, Blue and Grey Water Footprint of Production and Consumption (Value of Water Research Report Series Number 50) (UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, 2011).

  50. Pastor, A. V. et al. Accounting for environmental flow requirements in global water assessments. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 5041–5059 (2014).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  51. Briscoe, J. & Malik, R. P. S. India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).

  52. Vetter, S. H. et al. Corrigendum to “Greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural food production to supply Indian diets: implications for climate change mitigation” [Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 237 (2017) 234–241]. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 272, 83–85 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Herrero, M. et al. Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci USA 110, 20888–20893 (2013).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  54. Renard, C. Crop Residues in Sustainable Mixed Crop/Livestock Farming Systems (CABI, 1997).

  55. Smil, V. Crop residues: agriculture’s largest harvest. BioScience 49, 299–308 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. R: A language and environment for statistical computing (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, 2016).

  57. Haskell, M. J. The challenge to reach nutritional adequacy for vitamin A: β-carotene bioavailability and conversion—evidence in humans. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 96, 1193S–1203S (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  58. Schwalfenberg, G. K. Vitamins K1 and K2: the emerging group of vitamins required for human health. J. Nutr. Metab. 2017, 6254836 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Bakshi, M. P. S. Waste to worth: vegetable wastes as animal feed. CAB Rev. 11, 1–26 (2016).

  60. Dikshit, A. K. & Birthal, P. S. India’s livestock feed demand: estimates and projections. Agric. Econ. Res. Rev. 23, 15–28 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  61. Nair, P. K. R. et al. Soil carbon sequestration in tropical agroforestry systems: a feasibility appraisal. Environ. Sci. Pol. 12, 1099–1111 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  62. Murthy, I. K. et al. Carbon sequestration potential of agroforestry systems in India. Earth Sci. Clim. Change 4, 1000131 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank the Rockefeller Foundation for financial support. We are grateful for F. Harris and A. Dangour providing a critical review and advice on our analysis. We thank D. Wang for his support with the addition of health outcome estimates to our dietary data, M. Smith for his advice on the use of his dataset and C. Watson for providing complementary research on agroforestry systems.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



K.D., S.S.M. and W.W. designed the study. K.D. developed the modelling approach. K.D., K.F.D., C.G. and M.H. collected and managed data. K.D. and K.F.D. analysed water-use data; K.D., C.G. and M.H. processed livestock emission data. K.D., W.W. and S.N.B. evaluated diet-related health risk data. K.D. wrote the draft and designed the graphs and maps. K.D., K.F.D., C.G., M.H., M.S., S.N.B., S.S.M. and W.W. contributed to the writing of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kerstin Damerau.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary background information, results, discussion and methods of analysis.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data

We provide generated data on regional and national environmental footprints, national food exports, an analysis on cost of cultivation, dietary adequacy of current and modelled food supplies, and estimates on potential diet-related health risk reductions.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Damerau, K., Davis, K.F., Godde, C. et al. India has natural resource capacity to achieve nutrition security, reduce health risks and improve environmental sustainability. Nat Food 1, 631–639 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing