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Idli has high biodiversity footprint, finds study

Idli, chicken jalfrezi featured among foods with highest biodiversity footprint in a new study

Idli is made from rice which is a water-intensive crop.
Idli is made from rice which is a water-intensive crop. (Photo by Sarthak, Pexels)

India's idli, chana masala and rajma featured in the top 20 dishes with the highest biodiversity footprint, along with chicken jalfrezi and chicken chaat, according to a new study that analysed 151 popular local dishes from around the world.

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However, researchers found that dishes with beef as the main ingredient such as fraldinha - beef cut dish originating from Brazil - formed the bulk of the top 20. Chili con carne (spicy stew with chili peppers, beef and beans) and beef tartare were other such dishes.

The scientists from National University of Singapore analysed lists of popular dishes taken from and to estimate their biodiversity footprints when globally and locally produced.

The researchers found that dishes made from ingredients like beef, legumes and rice encroaching on biodiversity hotspots with already very high agricultural pressure such as India end up having a high biodiversity footprint.

"India was observed to be involved with the production of mostly high biodiversity footprint dishes with biodiversity impacts driven by ingredients (e.g. rice, legumes, chicken) that are not commonly flagged as having a high environmental footprint," the researchers wrote.

Brazilian beef dishes also had high biodiversity impacts due to the conversion of Amazon rainforest and other diverse ecosystems to pasture, they said.

Vegan and vegetarian dishes were found to have a consistent significantly lower biodiversity footprint compared to dishes containing meat, the researchers said.

On the other hand, dishes made from starchy foods comprising potato and wheat such as mantou and Chinese steamed bun were among those with the lowest biodiversity footprint, the researchers said in their study published in the journal PLoS ONE.

They said this was partly explained by the lower weights of these dishes with below-average biodiversity footprint per kcal per gram in both locally and globally produced scenarios.

The researchers calculated the biodiversity footprint of each dish's ingredient by looking at the richness, conservation status, and range of wild mammals, birds, and amphibians within the agricultural land used for the specific product.

They then added each ingredient's footprint together to generate the dish's overall biodiversity footprint score, which shifted depending on whether the ingredient was locally or globally sourced, and industrially or small-scale farmed.

Estimating dishes' biodiversity footprints across countries can empower consumers and facilitate transitioning towards sustainable diets to mitigate the impacts of producing food on biodiversity, the researchers said.

Small changes in the dish we choose to eat and where we get the ingredients from can go a long way in preventing species extinctions, they said.

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