The wastage myth

Some studies suggest that the amount of food the Americans waste every day is good enough to fill a football field.

Sometimes, when I am finished with my meal at a marriage ceremony and go out to throw my patal (made of leaves) in the dustbin, I watch with great regret and concern when a team of urchins would descend to look for leftovers.

After these children are done with, I find the dogs moving in. At the same time, I can spot a number of crows waiting for their turn.The clamour for food security extends beyond us, the well-to-do.

What we therefore consider as food wastage becomes essential to meet the desperate needs of food of not-so-lucky, and also that of the animals and birds. I have always, therefore, wondered whether food actually goes waste in a country like India.

I still find my mother providing a handful of kneaded wheat to the cows every morning, and also leave aside some chapatis for the dogs after dinner. What she does so religiously is actually aimed at ensuring food security for the animals. This is a common practice.

Indian religion teaches us compassion and to believe in sharing and caring.  This, however does not mean that food does not go waste. In America and Canada, 40 per cent food is wasted, much of it at the household level.

According to the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), the landfills are full of staple food, adding to greenhouse gases. Some other studies say that the amount of food Americans waste every day is good enough to fill a football field. Collectively, Americans waste $ 165 billion worth of food every year. A saving of 15 per cent in food wastage is good enough to feed 25 million hungry Americans. The US has 42 million people who are dependent upon supplementary nutrition programme.

Europe is no better. According to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe almost 90 million tonnes of food gets wasted every year. In a region where 79 million people live below the poverty line and 16 million depend on food aid from charities, the entire wastage if saved could leave a lot for export to hungry nations. Food wasted in Italy alone, for instance, is good enough to feed the total population of hungry millions in Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, the other day on a TV show on FDI in retail, the anchor asked me would FDI not help reduce the 40 per cent wastage we have in fruits and vegetables. My reply was that first I don't buy these figures, and secondly how can Wal-Mart curb food wastage when it has not been able to do so in America where 40 per cent food gets wasted.

Huge waste

I think the anchor didn't even know that food wastage was so high in the US. Why it is important to look at Wal-mart’s role is because as per the NRDC study, half of fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets go waste. If superstores are unable to reduce wastage of fruits and vegetables in America, I wonder how are we expecting these companies to perform in India.

Anyway, where has this figure of 40 per cent food wastage in India come from? As a student of agriculture, some 30 years back, I remember my teachers would often quote this figure. And I find even now the same figure is being nauseatingly used again and again simply to justify FDI in retail.

 Prime minister Manmohan Singh uses it, food minister K V Thomas uses it, and of course the former commerce minister Anand Sharma would use it every now and then.  The industry lobby groups – FICCI and CII – of course have been playing it up.  But now I find even Rahul Gandhi going a step ahead and saying 60-70 per cent food gets wasted.

But thanks to the efforts of the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering & Technology (CIPHET) at Ludhiana, the mist has finally been cleared. Based on a nation-wide study to make quantitative assessment of harvest and post-harvest losses for 46 agricultural produces in 106 randomly selected districts in 2010, it showed wastage in fruits to vary between 5.8 (in Sapota) to a maximum of 18 per cent (for Guava).

In vegetables, cauliflower has the minimum loss at 6.8 per cent while tomato faces 12.4 per cent loss.  Wastage for other items is much less. For crops it is between 3.9 to 6 per cent, cereals (4.3 to 6.1 per cent), pulses (4.3 to 6.1 per cent), oilseeds (6 per cent), meat (2.3 per cent), fish (2.9 per cent) and poultry (3.7 per cent).

These figures are much lower than the imaginative 40 per cent food wastage figure that is being tossed around.

In fact, comparing it with the United States, India fares much better. Against 50 per cent of fruits and vegetables perishing in the supermarkets alone, wastage of fruits and vegetables in India hover between 5.8 to a maximum of 18 per cent.

In case of cereals, wastage in case of wheat and rice is at an amazingly low of 4.3 to 6.1 per cent. What we consider as wastage I am sure ensures the food security of birds and animals. Probably, the US and Europe have a lot to learn from India in reducing food wastage.

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