Down the drain

Shocking details of the extent and impact of food wastage worldwide have been laid bare by a recent study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The report, “Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources” points out that 1.3 billion tonnes or roughly a third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. This wastage is unconscionable especially since around 870 million people i.e. one in every eight of the world’s population are undernourished. In monetary terms, this wastage amounts to US$ 750 million. The report draws attention to wastage on multiple fronts. Besides food and money that is going down the drain, energy, water, chemicals and other scarce resources that are used to produce this food are wasted. In addition to these direct costs, the FAO study for the first time ever examines what this wastage means for our environment, climate change, bio-diversity and so on.
What makes this wastage of food and scarce resources all the more untenable is the fact that it is preventable. The report says that 54 per cent of the wastage happens ‘upstream’ during production, post-harvest handling and storage. This problem is found mainly in developing countries like India. In the absence of proper storage silos, grains are eaten up by rats or destroyed by rain. Delivery of perishable goods by trains and trucks is often delayed by poor infrastructure. Around 46 per cent food wastage happens ‘downstream’ at the processing, distribution and consumption stages, the study points out. In many rich countries, fruits and vegetables that are edible but don’t ‘look good’ and may not thus appeal to consumer tastes, do not reach store shelves and end up in trash cans. Ill-informed consumers here throw away food ahead of the expiry date. 

The FAO report provides useful suggestions that governments the world over would do well to consider. Besides taking direct steps to reduce food wastage, it calls for re-using food within the food chain, i.e. find other markets to dispose food or distribute it among the poor and hungry. It also talks of recycling food when re-use is not possible. Food wastage needs to be tackled on a war footing. It is essential to address global problems like hunger and malnutrition. The point the study makes is that food shortage is largely man-made as is hunger. If people are hungry and malnourished this is because grains are going down the drain.

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