Billion buck dilemma

India is a land of paradoxes. When pitched against the background of rampant food wastage, this should be considered a mild understatement

This republic of ours is the world’s largest producer of spices, pulses, milk, tea, cashew and jute, and the second largest producer of wheat, rice, fruits, vegetables, sugarcane, cotton and oilseeds. It is the world’s second largest producer of fruits and vegetables and the largest producer of mango and banana. We boast of the highest productivity of grapes in the world, as well as the world’s biggest milk producer. This country’s agricultural export constitutes 10 per cent of the country’s exports making it the fourth-largest exported principal commodity.

Pretty much a land of plenty, you could say; a country where people live, eat and make merry. But that would be a hasty conclusion to arrive at because you have not seen the flip side of this successful farm story. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017’ report, has some details that can shock the biggest Indian optimist. Roughly 38.4 per cent of children under five in India are stunted, while 51.4 per cent of women in the reproductive ages are anemic.

The report defines stunting as the result of long-term nutritional deprivation, which may affect mental development, school performance and intellectual capacity.

Prevalence of child stunting in India at 38.4 per cent compares poorly with 14.7 per cent in Sri Lanka and 9.4 per cent in China.

India is home to 17 per cent of the world’s population. Being home to a quarter of the world’s undernourished people, a third of the world’s underweight children and roughly a quarter of the world’s hungry, can India have a productive and efficient workforce, or enjoy any meaningful economic dividend? That is a reasonable question to pose.

India can tackle these urgent pressing issues by one single-minded strategy: reduce food wastage in the country.

According to one recent report, food loss is valued at $1 trillion globally by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) —enough to feed the 800 million who sleep hungry every night. Of this, India’s share is 200 million, a country that grows sufficient food to feed its burgeoning population of 1.3 billion.

Here, food wastage takes place at various stages – farms, storage, restaurants, hotels, celebrations such as wedding ceremonies and birthday parties — and at homes.

Ludhiana-based Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology, in 2015 estimated the harvest and post-harvest loss of India’s major agricultural produce at Rs 92,651 crore, which is equivalent to $13 billion. Similarly 7 per cent of meat, valued at Rs 3,942 crore ($590 million), was wasted, of which about 60 per cent was lost during storage. All this food wastage in the country translates to approximately $7.5 billion.

For a country, which employs 53 per cent of its workforce in the farm sector and where agriculture contributes 15 per cent to GDP, this is too high a price

to pay.

First, farmers across India have been dumping their produce for lack of fair price. For instance farmers in Chhattisgarh last year dumped their tomato produce after it failed to fetch them rates of 50 paise per KG!

This, mind you, after the problem has been well chronicled and discussed at various levels as official policy. The 2016 report of the ‘Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income’ led by Ashok Dalwai has been extensively quoted but not acted upon while recommendations of the National Commission of Farmers chaired by MS Swaminathan in 2006, is yet to be implemented, despite copious lip service paid to it. 

As ever, infrastructure issues have come to cripple the system. India currently has 7,645 cold storage facilities across various states with a total capacity of 34.95 million tonnes (MT), which is grossly insufficient. If that was not bad enough, the cold-chain landscape is limited to a few pockets in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Punjab, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.

The second level of wastage takes place during social occasions, such as lavish marriages, birthday celebrations and festivities. Often, the rich and nouveau rich host parties that have a spread of over a 100 dishes representing Thai, Chinese, Mediterranean and Indian cuisines served in super-size silver platters. More than 40 per cent of this spread is wasted.

A survey conducted in 2012 found out that annually, Bangalore alone wastes 943 tonnes of quality food during weddings. This is enough to feed 2.6 crore people a normal Indian meal, a study by a team of 10 professors from the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Bangalore, had concluded. The team had surveyed 75 of Bangalore's 531 marriage halls over a period of six months.

Buoyed by higher disposal incomes, working women, socialising and experimenting with different cuisines, the trend of eating out is catching pace.

A report by the National Restaurants Association of India (NRAI) and consulting firm, Technopak, projects that the “food services market in India is projected to grow to Rs 4.98 trillion by 2021, expanding at an annual average rate of 10 per cent, from Rs 3.09 trillion in 2016." Clearly then, if we are unable to put a lid on the way things are going, India would in a few years, become one of the largest wasters of food in the world.