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Indian Society

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought up the issue of food wastage on his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ programme about two months ago, he endorsed a valid point when he asked people not to waste food. Though he raised an extremely critical issue of national importance, he could also have used the occasion to propose some government-led mechanism to handle it.

He was right to an extent when he linked food wastage to people’s behaviour. However, there are wastages which happen in any case due to food’s perishability and the absence of an effective distribution mechanism and legal framework. Looking at the scale of problems, it is wise to frame a comprehensive strategy by combining the efforts of the government and private sectors and civil society. The government can create a time-bound task force under Niti Aayog, with experts from different sectors, to frame a national policy to tackle this gigantic issue, which can recommend the legal framework to support initiatives to reduce food loss and waste. As a nation, we need to give priority to tackling this issue so that we can handle the social, economic and environmental ill-effects of wastage of food.

One third of food wasted

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), “One third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year.” It also states: “Food is lost or wasted throughout the supply chain, from initial agricultural production to final household consumption.” The losses, it says, represent “a waste of resources used in production such as land, water, energy and inputs, increasing the green gas emissions in vain”.

Food wastage has multiple socio-economic and environmental impacts. In a country like India, not only is food scarce for many poor families, it is a luxury for many others. Though hunger cannot be tackled directly by preventing food wastage, a substantial amount of food that is wasted in our country can feed many hungry people. India ranked 97th among 118 countries in the Global Hunger Index for 2016. About 20 crore people go to bed hungry and 7,000 people die of hunger every day; wastage of food is not less than a social delinquency. According to one estimate, 21 million tonnes of wheat are wasted in India every year. A recent study by the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, revealed that only 10% of food is covered by cold storage facilities in India. This, coupled with poor supply-chain management, results in significant wastage, both at pre- and post-harvest stages, of cereals, pulses, fruits and vegetables.

The wastage of food entails loss of considerable amount of resources in the form of inputs used during production. For example, 25% of fresh water and nearly 300 million barrels of oil used to produce food are ultimately wasted.

The increasing wastage also results in land degradation by about 45%, mainly due to deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, and excessive groundwater extraction. Wastage results in national economic loss. To put a monetary value to the loss in terms of wastage, India loses Rs. 58,000 crore every year, to quote The CSR Journal .

The energy spent over wasted food results in 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide production every year. Decay also leads to harmful emission of other gases in the atmosphere; for instance, decaying of rice produces methane. Food waste emissions have a major impact on climate change and result in greater carbon footprint.

Laws to encourage donation

Many countries have legislation providing for global best practices, such as the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act in the U.S., which was intended to encourage donation of food and grocery products that meet quality and labelling standards by protecting the donor and the recipient agency against liability, except in the case of gross negligence and/or intentional misconduct. France has taken a lead by becoming the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from destroying unsold food, forcing them instead to donate it to charities or food banks or send it to the farmers to be used as fertilisers in crop production.

In India, there are many civil society, private sector and community initiatives aimed at distributing food among the poor. The government is also committed to securing availability of food grains for two-thirds of the 1.3 billion population, under the National Food Security Act, 2013. While securing food for all or feeding them through such initiatives is important, addressing wastage of food in all forms is equally critical to complete the cycle of food sufficiency and food sustainability. There are initiatives such as India Food Banking Network (IFBN), which is promoting the concept of collaborative consumption with support from the private sector and civil society organisations. Such initiatives, creating networks and channels of distribution between those who have surplus food and those who are in need of them, are necessary.

The government needs to do more and should play a larger facilitating role. The Prime Minister’s call to the nation needs to be followed up with further interventions. There is an urgent need to understand the complexity of the problem and then to devise a national-level strategy to combat it so that surplus of food can be turned into an advantage instead of resulting in wastage. Hunger and food wastage are two sides of the coin. The cycle of hunger cannot be broken without channelising the wasted food to help the needy. Without stopping wastage of food, we cannot do justice to millions of hungry people, our economy and the planet.

Sanjay Kumar is the India Country Director of Harvard South Asia Institute. Views are personal

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