Food Loss & Waste - Tip of the iceberg to a colossal growing problem at hand

2022-01-17 14:05:54

I recently got invited to a wedding in the neighborhood, and though I keep my social commitments to a bare minimum given my aversion to the blatant and unparalleled amounts of waste (read dry/wet/food/water and all the kinds one can imagine) such events generate.

I vividly remember the weddings I had been to as a kid in the 90’s, from a spoon to a glass of water, everything was reusable (think steel/glass/melamine/ceramic plates) then slowly the changes started emerging at the onset of the new decade of 2000. Suddenly no one wanted to reuse the utensils and water bottles and disposables (plates/bowls/spoons/forks) became a common sight. Today more than 95% of crockery is single-use, and so every gathering of such a scale ends up with a huge pile of waste that can not be reused or recycled in any way since food contamination is too high and expensive to clean. Though this problem is quite noticed, there is even a bigger issue which lies here, “leftovers”. 

Insane amounts of food that are palatable end up in the bin because of such events, In Bangalore, 85,000 weddings per year throw away about 943 metric tons of food, according to a 2012 study from the University of Agricultural Science (UAS), Bangalore. That is enough to give 26 million people a decent meal primarily due to leftovers in the plates and the new age obsession with the ‘buffet’ that generally has a long list of items and categories like starters / main course/desserts etc. A rough estimate points that this amount of wasted food would be sufficient to end our country’s hunger problems to quite an extent. Now, this is one way to look at it.

But, let's backtrack this issue and see where it leads us, the journey of food from our plate to the farm. A grain of rice changes hands at least 5-7 times before ending up on our plate, right from the grower, middlemen, wholesalers, retailers which means that every grain wasted is not just about food but the loss for the entire ecosystem including our planet/soil/water. 

Globally, 30% of the fresh food produced ends up in the bin due to a variety of reasons starting from farming practices, harvesting methods, supply chain & logistics, retail, and consumer patterns. 

There is no doubt that India is blessed with agricultural wealth. In 2020-2021, India was expected to produce 305.4 million tonnes of grain. But, despite that, it was way below than required to feed its population. According to the FAO 2019 report, around 14.5% of Indians are underfed.  Despite the good economic performance, with over 200 million people who are food insecure, India is home to the largest number of hungry people in the world. In the ranking of the Global Hunger Index 2017, it covers position 100 out of 119 ranked countries and has a "serious" (31.4) food security situation

Apart from the direct food waste and loss, 21% of fresh potable water is lost due to fresh food waste which again poses a major issue in our country, access to clean water for the masses. 

If we calculate the worth of food that goes to waste, the amount is significant even for a developed country. And every next stage where food goes to waste it keeps getting costlier in terms of revenue. The global number is staggering at $2.6 Tn. The major problem in the country is the high prevalence of underweight children under five, which is a result of the low nutrition and educational status of women. Let's understand this in detail. 

For example in the case of an apple which generally retails around INR 160 (avg.) in our country, when freshly harvested, the farmer would sell it at around INR 50 / kg and as it travels further down the supply chain when it goes to a middleman who has paid 50 rupees for it would sell it at a profit and let's say he sells it for INR 60-75 / kg and so on. By the time it reaches the consumer it's selling at about 160/kg, so if wastage happens at the consumer’s end, he ends up paying a very high price.

One of the primary reasons for the wastage of fresh food in our country is the absence of a well efficient supply chain and storage facilities. In our country, the Agri supply chain is at best patchy which poses an even greater risk for the products which travel through extreme and harsh climatic conditions resulting in spoilage, moisture loss, discoloration, microbial infections, etc. 

Coming back to the fruits, there are numerous reasons for rejection even after they make it to the markets on time. People tend to prefer fruits that are cosmetically appealing, of a certain color, shape, and size which in turn forces the farmers and middlemen to grade the products as per the retailer and client requirements. This grading, to appease the cosmetic look and feel of the customer, ends up with quite a lot of inventory (which at a product level is as good as the cosmetically appealing one in terms of taste and nutrition) with the farmer/middlemen which at many a times find no takers and eventually ends up getting wasted.

Huge piles of grains rot in the mandis in absence of a robust storage system and right linkages between different markets. Rains, pests, rats are common reasons for grains being wasted year on year. The Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food, and Public Distribution has revealed that more than 38,000 metric tonnes (MTs) of food grains were damaged in the last five years... and you can mention that 1500 alone in April-July during lockdown making it unusable and unfit for consumption by people. This was in the year 2020 only, if we backtrack and add the data of the last couple of decades the numbers would astonish us. 

Now also consider the cooked food wastage in weddings, functions, events, hotels, etc. Raw rice which would retail at about 50/kg goes through the rigorous process of cooking and is mixed with other ingredients which would exponentially increase its worth (think biryani). Now it’s not just rice that is being wasted but water, gas, resources, oil, condiments, and other fresh food. Every stage added to the cost and the final cost of wastage is quite high just like in the case of fresh food i.e. apple in the above example.

What is the solution?

Mahatma Gandhi once famously said “Be the change you wish to see in this world”, to start with we could always control and moderate our own consumption, buying the right quantity of fresh food, streamlining cooking with our eating patterns, serving only what we can finish, absolutely zero wastage of cooked food. This one small change on an individual level would amount to the compounding effect of the masses. 

We should root for better technologies to solve these problems and try to save every morsel of food that could be routed to a hungry stomach. We need to build awareness around these problems and look for solutions. There may not be one solution but a collective effort is the need of the hour to tackle this problem from its root. 

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