Achieving Food Security by Reducing Food Loss and Waste

Food Loss and Waste refers to food not consumed by people and is either lost or wasted somewhere in the food supply chain between being ready for harvest and used-up as consumed food.

A few startling facts to begin with :
  • Around 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted globally per year amounting to $940 billion of economic losses ( approximately INR 70 Lakh Crores).
  • One in nine people remain undernourished.
  • Food that is harvested but ultimately lost or wasted consumes about 25% of all water used by agriculture every year.
  • Food Loss and Waste contributes to an estimated 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions(GHG) responsible for global warming.
Where does maximum Food Loss and Waste occur in India ?

The food supply chain has several stages such as agricultural production, handling and storage , processing and packaging , distribution and marketing and finally consumption.

Hard to believe but maximum food loss happens during harvest in several forms such as grain left behind by poor harvesting equipment , sieving, threshing remains , fruits and vegetables not harvested , discarded fish/meat or natural disasters damaging the yield.

During handling and storage, food gets spoilt by pests, fungus , moisture and/or disease . During processing and packaging spillage of milk, damaged fish , fruits and vegetables unsuitable for processing etc. , get wasted.

At the time of distribution, fruit and vegetables are discarded for looking ‘imperfect’ as supermarkets demand ‘fresh and attractive look’ for fresh products, food that has expired(not sold by sell-by date) and failure to meet food compliance and safety standards (example high pesticides or fertilizer content).

And finally, a lot of food that is purchased by us (consumers) , restaurants , caterers etc. are not eaten and wasted.

What foods are prone to more wastage ?

Cereals take the top spot with wheat, rice, millets being the dominant group contributing to loss .

In the roots and tubers category : potatoes , sweet potatoes , cassava (called Maravalli Kizhangu in Tamil, Kappa in Malayalam, Kavva pendalam in Telugu, Mara Genasu in Kannada and Simla Aloo in Hindi) suffer maximum loss.

Despite meat being a relatively low contributor to global food wastage in terms of volumes (less than 5% of total food wastage) it has a significant impact on climate change, contributing to over 20% of the carbon footprint of total food waste . Efforts to reduce food wastage should focus on major climate hotspot commodities, such as meat and cereals .

And why have countries not taken drastic steps to reduce food wastage ?

In India and other developing countries , costs to setup cold storage units for reducing food waste is so high that project becomes unviable or loss making. Entrepreneurs and Government agencies do not want to invest as initial costs are high and immediate short-term benefits are low.

We should also consider non-financial reasons of reducing Food Loss and Waste such as enhanced food security for our people, better waste regulations, sense of social responsibility and environmental sustainability. Governments must look at the benefit-cost ratio as a generational investment and not as a short-term return on investment.

An Interesting Example of Innovation :

The Apeel Science company has developed sprays of thin oils to coat fruits and vegetables from organic sources. These sprays originally extracted from plants such as banana leaves and peels have extended shelf life of fruits and vegetables by 30 days or more. It helps hold in water, which prevents vegetables and fruits from shriveling and controls the exchange of gases between the interior of the fruit or vegetable and the atmosphere, particularly oxygen and ethylene, to slow decay. Finally, it also blocks the ability of bacteria to spoil the food. Because this method works without refrigeration, it offers great potential benefits in countries like India with limited refrigeration.

Next Steps :

Improving food production and supply chains by having better infrastructure in cold storage , handling , efficient order forecasting and factory processes is the first big saving. Though there is no single answer to this problem, we can approach this from multiple angles such as government policies, targeted technology , consumer mindset and set realistic targets to reduce food loss and measure them continuously.

As a food consumer, how can we be socially responsible when it comes to food waste ?

Here are some thoughts :

  • Understand the massive food poverty that exists today and try move away from a careless attitude of those who can afford the food but waste them.
  • Public awareness. Spread the word, educate those around you and participate in consumer education initiatives at schools and government levels.
  • Try and reduce portion sizes of what you eat as well as what you cook. Consider starting to eat food on a clean plate and ending your food on an empty plate. Not only will this improve your cooking skills , it will also give you the satisfaction of helping create a brighter future for all.
  • Buy ‘imperfect’ looking foods . Fruits and vegetables with irregular shape, cleft or blemish may fall below high cosmetic standards , but having an aesthetic defect is not a reason for not buying or throwing away food.
  • Wasted food lands up as garbage in landfills and that is a staggering 17% contributor to methane/Green House Gas(GHG)emissions . Implement composting options at home and in the community around you.

Published by Meena Iyer

Sustainability champion and naturally committed to support the cause of healing our planet impacted due to climate change.

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