Food Wastage: India Fares Much Better Than the US and Europe

Sometimes, when I am finished with my meal at a marriage ceremony and go out to throw my patal (made from 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 away 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 food security needs of the not-so-lucky — and also that of the animals and birds. I have always therefore wondered whether food actually goes to waste in a country like India. I still find my mother providing a handful of kneaded wheat to the cows every morning and some chapatis for the dogs after dinner. She does this religiously to ensure food security for the animals. If you look around, this is a common practice. Indian religion teaches compassion and to believe in sharing and caring.  

This however does not mean that food does not get wasted. In America and Canada, 40 per cent of food is wasted, much of it at the household level. According to the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), landfills are full of staple food, adding to greenhouse gases. Some other studies say that the amount of food Americans waste every day is enough to fill a football field. Collectively, Americans waste $165 billion worth of food every year. Saving 15 per cent of the food waste would be enough to feed 25 million hungry Americans. The US has 42 million people who are dependent upon a 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 (out of the total 40 million hungry) depend on food aid from charities, the entire wastage, if saved, could not only feed the entire hungry population but also leave a lot for export to poor nations. The food wasted in Italy alone, for instance, would be 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 believe 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 of food does get wasted. I think the anchor didn't even know that food wastage was so high in the US. It is important to look at Wal-mart’s role because, as per the NRDC study, half of all fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets is wasted.

If US superstores are unable to reduce wastage of fruits and vegetables in America, I wonder how we can expect these companies to take care of food wastage in India. Ask a vegetable hawker roaming in the streets of India and he will teach you how not to waste food. Nothing is wasted by vegetable hawkers who have no sophisticated technology to store perishables.  

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 Congress leader Rahul Gandhi going a step ahead and saying 60-70 per cent of food gets wasted.

Thanks to the Ludhiana-based Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering & Technology (CIPHET), 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 food products is much less. For crops it is between 3.9 to 6 per cent, cereals (4.3 to 6.1 per cent), pulses (4.3-6.1 per cent), oilseeds (6 per cent), meat (2.3 per cent), fish (2.9 per cent) and poultry (3.7 per cent). The wastage in cereals also includes the grains rotting in storage that have been repeatedly splashed on TV screens.  

These figures are much lower than the imagined 40 per cent food wastage figure that is being tossed around. In fact, if compared with the United States, India fares much better. Against 50 per cent of fruits and vegetables perishing in supermarkets alone, wastage of fruits and vegetables in India hovers between 5.8 to a maximum of 18 per cent. In the case of cereals, wastage of wheat and rice is at an amazingly low 4.3 to 6.1 per cent. What we consider as wastage I am sure ensures the food security of birds and animals. They too need food, and sometimes what is inadvertently wasted meets their food security needs.

The US and Europe have a lot to learn from India in reducing food wastage.

Devinder Sharma is a well-known food and agriculture policy analyst. Contact: hunger55@gmail.com.

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