In July 2020, a study published in The Lancet suggests that by the year 2100, India’s population might shrink to one billion due to a steady decline in fertility rates. The study was titled Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: A forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study.
While its name might be quite the mouthful, the predictions made about India in the study need urgent focus. The study explains that India has witnessed a steady and significant decline in total fertility rate (TFR) over the last few decades. Our TFR has decreased from 5.6 births per woman in 1950 to 2.14 births per woman in 2017. The study then projected that the TFR of Indians will continue to decline steeply, reaching a TFR of 1.29 by 2100. The global TFR will have, the study says, declined to 1.7 births per woman by that time.
Do these predictions, and the future they imply, remind you of dystopian novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? If they do, it is because while population control is a crucial developmental goal for many countries—especially ones like India, where the resources we have aren’t sufficient for the ever-growing populace—a decline in fertility rates is not the healthy way to achieve it.
Major causes of infertilityFertility, for both men and women, is a marker of natural and good health. Abnormalities in it, as well as increasing rates of infertility, would indicate ill-health rather than progress in the right direction. So, what is causing this increase in infertility rates not just in India, but globally? The Cleveland Clinic lists the following as major causes of infertility among women.
• Uterine problems: Reproductive health problems which affect the uterus, like fibroids, polyps and adhesions, can cause infertility.
• Fallopian tube problems: Sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia and gonorrhoea, as well as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), can cause tubal factor infertility.
• Ovulation problems: Thyroid conditions like hypothyroid, severe stress, and other conditions that lead to hormonal imbalances can affect the ovulation process in women. Prolonged or uncontrolled problems in ovulation can cause infertility.
• Quality and quantity of eggs: Women, in case you didn’t know, are born with all the eggs they will ever have. Chromosomal problems as well as lifestyle and nutrition problems can affect the quality and quantity of these eggs, thereby leading to infertility.
It’s quite clear that sexual and reproductive health education—or, in fact, its lack—is at the very core of infertility problems among women. So is access to health resources, nutrition, sanitation, and a safe and healthy environment. It must also be noted that male infertility is also an emerging problem, with many realising that the onus of infertility doesn’t just rest on women. Unhealthy lifestyles and habits, sexual health problems and reproductive diseases or abnormalities are equally common among men, and do contribute to overall infertility rates.
Pollution, climate crisis, and infertilityWhat has become equally clear in recent years is the effect pollution and the climate crisis are having on fertility rates. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2020, titled Female Fertility and Environmental Pollution, explains that increasing pollution levels are causing infertility among all mammalian species on this planet, not just women. It states that “a woman’s fertility is dependent on the timely and appropriate orchestration of ovarian and hormonal functions”, and any dysregulations can have short- and long-term effects on her sexual and reproductive health. The study explains that women are constantly exposed to high levels of pollution within and outside homes, and this can cause oxidative stress and hormonal imbalances which can, in turn, lead to infertility, among other health problems.
Most pollutants today, whether they are chemicals, heavy metals, particulate matter or plastics, can cause the neuroendocrine system to malfunction, the study says. Apart from affecting women who want to become pregnant, these pollutants can also wreak havoc in the lives of women who are already pregnant. The study says that exposure to pollutants during pregnancy can not only cause illness in the mother-to-be, but may also increase the risk of birth defects. Another study in the journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology published in 2018, titled Air Pollution and Female Fertility, states that female infertility seems to be increasing parallel to the increase in global toxic emissions. The main reason behind this is that most air pollutants are endocrine disruptors, meaning that they impair the activity of the key female hormones like oestrogen and progesterone.
Can sustainable living reduce infertility rates?This second study, therefore, posits that air pollution in particular has a huge impact on female fertility. This is especially true since most air pollutants can not only be inhaled but also ingested when they enter the food chain or water supply. The same may be applied to all other types of pollutants. Eating pesticide-ridden or contaminated food can affect your hormonal balance just as much as drinking impure water can. In fact, it’s quite likely that the choices you make while selecting what to eat can have a direct bearing on your fertility levels. For example, studies have shown that rice crops in India are particularly prone to having high amounts of arsenic. Eating rice regularly, especially without washing it and cooking it thoroughly, can increase your exposure to arsenic, which is very well-known to affect fertility negatively.
Ask any expert and they’ll tell you that living a healthy life, making the right lifestyle choices, and being aware of your reproductive health needs is critical for women who want to become pregnant. Adopting a sustainable lifestyle can definitely help with this. A sustainable lifestyle is not just one that’s closer to or more in tune with nature, but also one that leads to conscious, healthy choices that can benefit you as well as the planet. For example, consuming a diet which is plant-based and completely devoid of processed, junk, or harmful foods is likely to provide for your nutritional needs, keep you healthy and disease-free. These are all parameters you need to meet to make sure your reproductive system is working fine.
A sustainable lifestyle also includes activities like gardening, walking, or cycling instead of taking automobiles that use fossil fuels. These activities can keep you physically active, which in turn can prevent weight gain, obesity, and related problems that can cause infertility in the long run. What’s more, adopting a sustainable lifestyle also involves active participation in reducing pollution as well as household waste, which can help reduce your exposure to pollutants that can affect your fertility levels. In fact, the larger the number of people who make conscious, eco-friendly choices—especially ones that help reduce pollution levels—the more likely it is that the global drop in fertility rates can be countered. This is, after all, not an individual problem but one that encompasses and affects everyone on this planet.