Wastage of all kinds of food during farm-to-fork journey and also because of mindless indulgences by people with dispensable income whenever they visit supermarkets remains a global curse. It is known that over one-third of India’s fruit and vegetables valued at over Rs 13,000 crore is wasted annually in the absence of adequate refrigerated storage infrastructure and logistics deficiencies.
The other villain is the anachronistic distribution system, favouring middlemen who do not have the vision or resources to create facilities that will not leave horticulture produce exposed to the blistering sun during the long Indian summer. At 2013-14 horticulture production of 280.7 million tonne, the country’s requirement of cold storage space to keep fruit and vegetables fresh and cosmetically appealing round the year is conservatively estimated 65 million tonne. But the available capacity is just over 30 million tonne distributed unevenly among the states. Harvesting of most fruit and vegetables is seasonal, while their demand remains constant through the seasons. Deficiencies in cold chain cause alternating glut and scarcity in the supply of horticulture products.
This apart, preventable post-harvest losses of foodgrains are around 20 million tonne. Wasted grains of this magnitude, according to the World Bank, would be good to mitigate the hunger of one-third of the country’s poor. Of around 65 million tonne of grains storage capacity, space to hold nearly 20 million tonne is just raised platform with some kind of temporary cover allowing quick deterioration in stored grain quality. The 2014-15 budget allocation of `5,000 crore for raising warehouse capacity is too little when unscientific storing by the Food Corporation of India is perennially causing big losses of grains, inviting unfavourable world attention. Equally disappointing the budget has not given a roadmap for development of cold chain across the country.
However, politicians of every hue routinely make noise about trade machinations that will deny fruit and vegetable growers due rewards for their efforts. At the same time, consumers do not enjoy the benefits of a competitive market. No wonder, our traders will go to any length to oppose foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector. FDI, however, holds the promise of filling to some extent the disturbingly high gaps in the country’s cold chain that includes cold storage at strategic points and refrigerated trucks and railway wagons. Stuck with an inefficient distribution system, the country is losing food worth `45,000 crore a year.
Even while India remains at the top of the heap among major food wasters because of its production volume and spoilage percentage, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says in a report that 42% of fruit and vegetables grown in the Asia Pacific region will routinely perish on account of poor post-harvest handling and lack of investment in cold chain. India, with 24.3 million hectare under horticulture, has a 17% share of global vegetable production and 14% of world fruit output.
“It is common wisdom that a good portion of fruit and vegetables grown here will routinely go waste in the field and during many layers of post-harvest handling. But percentages of crop loss projected by different agencies are all guesstimates. Let a comprehensive survey of wastages be done with assessors going to fields where fruit and vegetables are grown and then cover the entire supply chain up to the table,” says B Thiagarajan, member of the Planning Commission committee on encouraging investments in supply chains. His guess, which could be as off the mark as anybody else’s, of the loss of horticulture produce in the country is around 25%.
Marketing system here is so tilted in favour aggregators and traders that prices of fruit and vegetables at the first point of sale at large mandis as a proportion of final retail rates are in the range of 25% to 40%. Since there are at least a couple of layers between farm gate and large mandis, rewards for growers are much less than a quarter of prices at terminal retail point. To the disadvantage of growers, the loss of produce during the journey from growing field to retail outlets is factored in at farm gate prices. Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Acts in various states were conceived to protect farmers from exploitation by market intermediaries. In practice, however, farmers have become captive in the hands of licensed traders. This is why the Centre has decided to intercede with states for delisting fruit and vegetables from APMC Acts to enable farmers to sell their produce freely without being tied down to traders. Thiagarajan says: “Farmers will benefit immensely if they unite in groups to form marketing organisations. There are already a few instances of savvy farmer groups producing and marketing branded fruit which command premium prices.”
If Indian scourge is acute infrastructure deficit, the enormity of food wastage in developed countries has got to do with a popular culture of buying a lot more than what families will need over a week. The Americans are found throwing away food worth over $165 billion every year. The Waste and Resources Action Programme in Britain finds that Britons are guilty of annually chucking at least 7 million tonne of food. Millions of tonnes of foods are wasted because of confusion over ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates. As supermarket shopping is fast catching on in our cities, it is important that we should know the difference between the two food labels: ‘use by’ applicable to milk and shaved meats and ‘best before’ stamped on cereals, biscuits and canned and frozen foods. Items carrying ‘use by’ label must be junked after the date. However, foods coming with the ‘best before’ tag are safe to eat after expiry date unless they are found ‘damaged, deteriorated or perished.’ Our government agencies and supermarkets will be advised to launch campaigns to remove the confusion. After all, India can ill afford any more food waste.
Kunal Bose is a former Financial Times correspondent
The views expressed by the author are personal