Food is an integral part of our culture, in fact, we can pretty much say that food is the culture and everything else revolves around it, and rightly so. Our primal needs are to survive and for that food is critical, the evolution of civilization is directly proportional to the progression of food habits. We started as hunters-gatherers in the stone age where we foraged and continually moved as per the availability of food and as Yuval Noah mentions in Sapiens when humans discovered wheat cultivation our civilization got domesticated which has been one of the biggest shifts in our behavior and set the foundation for the modern day society.
While we were foraging for food there was no concept of storage and it was available in abundance like animals we did not eat every day, life was simple. When people realized the possibility of cultivation there was a big shift in the mindset hence food became a commodity, it got a price and then the economics and trading started of protecting it, storing it, shipping it, and making a living out of it.
With storage came the challenge of food loss and food waste. Though these two terms may appear similar to all of us, there is a thin line that differs them, let us try to understand them in detail and dig into some data points to get better clarity.
Agriculture depends on various external factors like a monsoon, climate, pests, etc making it a complicated equation. Imagine when the crop is ready to harvest and there is an untimely rain which would severely damage it OR there is a pest attack which can wipe out the entire crop, all these issues would result in “food loss” whereas if there is a large gathering of people where massive pots of food are being prepared (remember the example when the raw food is turned into edible food after putting in a lot of resources and effort) and due to variety of reasons there is a huge leftover without any takers that would be termed as food waste.
So can we say that when we end up losing food largely because of factors beyond our control it falls under food loss and when we lose it because of human error/misjudgment it shall be termed as food waste? If that holds true then what shall we label losing it because of greed like overfishing, animal farming disease (bird flu, etc.), Or in quite a few cases like retailers, edible produce is discarded just because it is not marketable, I’ll let you ponder on it for a while. Before we dig deeper into data we should also try and understand the difference between when we are directly responsible for wastage and when we indirectly contribute towards it since as a consumer we would always have a role in this spectrum.
According to a Forbes India report, 931 million tonnes of food was wasted, out of which 61% surprisingly came from households!
Surprised right? We always tend to feel that bigger institutions/corporates etc would be the culprit but reality is entirely different. Families waste most of it given our unsustainable food practices, buying/cooking more than we need, storage issues, leftover waste, etc.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the consumer. Retailers, wholesalers, farmers, and logistic players are all just the small spokes in the wheel. The true power lies with consumers who drive the whole narrative and what they want when they want, and how they want it.
As a consumer we tend to demand apples throughout the year for example and to meet that demand there have to be cold storage facilities, logistics, etc which would cause wastages at various points of the supply chain.
Going to a restaurant and opting for a buffet where there are a minimum of 25 dishes on the menu, even though it’s impossible for us to eat all of it. We still want the ‘more the merrier approach which leads to massive wastages since none of it can be reused or recycled or repurposed.
Now coming back to the question I left you with, what happens to issues where wastage happens at the source like fishing, animal farming etc? Since we have started treating food as a commodity and not as a sacred need to survive, every individual/company involved in the supply-chain wishes to maximize the profits out of it, which ignores the demand and the sentiments at times leading to massive wastages across the spectrum.
Animal farming is another example where frequent diseases/infections happen in absence of a proper compliance process because we want everything cheap and fast which has driven the industry to heavily use drugs and antibiotics to make them gain weight heavier and faster.
What could be the solution for all this?
We need to understand it’s not just the food that we are wasting but its allied resources, be it water, energy, labor, etc. And till the time we do not become aware of our choices as consumers, we would keep straining this planet. It is high time we take cognizance of the matter and look for a behavior shift like our ancestors did. A few things which could be explored are making efficient supply chain systems, inventing methods to keep food fresh and consumables for a longer period of time, controlling our greed, and treating food as a sacred component that is essential for our survival as a species.
Another angle needs to be re-explored and I say “re-explored” since sustainable eating used to be the norm in the earlier days which was lost during capitalism and various so-called revolutions. India has had a rich tradition—one that we are fast losing—of using almost every part of a fruit or vegetable as food. Some of this was due to a centuries-old understanding of how nutritious these parts are, such as jackfruit seeds, which are very high in protein. Some of it was due to a culture of frugality. And some of it was simply on account of ecological conditions—watermelon rind was popular in arid regions, for example, because it contains a lot of water, and few vegetables and fruit grow in such areas anyway. Nothing could be wasted.
The issue of food loss might be solved to a certain extent by improving our cold chain logistics, storage facility, harvesting best practices, etc but when it comes to food waste we need a major shift in our consumption habits, sticking to the age-old concept of seasonality and optimizing our eating pattern.