Sometimes, when I am finished with my meal at a marriage ceremony and go out to throw my 'pattal' (made from leaves) in the dustbin, I watch with immense concern when a team of urchins descend to look for leftovers. After these children are done with it, 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 consider as food wastage becomes essential to meet the food security needs of the not-so-lucky, and also those of animals and birds. I have always wondered whether food actually goes waste in a country like India. I still find my mother providing a handful of kneaded wheat to cows every morning and also leaving some chapattis for dogs after dinner.
What she does so religiously is actually aimed at ensuring food security for animals. Indian religion teaches us compassion, sharing and caring. This, however, does not mean that food does not go waste.
In America and Canada, 40% food is wasted, much of it at the household level.
According to the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), the landfills are full of staple food, adding to greenhouse gases. Some other studies say that the amount of food Americans waste everyday is good enough to fill a football field. Collectively, Americans waste $165 billion worth of food every year. A saving of 15% in food wastage is good enough to feed 25 million hungry Americans.
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 depend on food aid, the entire wastage, if prevented, could leave a lot for export to hungry nations. Food wasted in Italy alone, for instance, is good enough to feed the hungry millions in Ethiopia.
Nevertheless, the other day on a TV show on FDI in retail, the anchor asked me whether FDI would help reduce the 40% wastage in fruits and vegetables. My reply was that first, I don't buy these figures and, secondly, how can Wal-Mart curb food wastage in our country when it has not been able to do so in America, where 40% food gets wasted. I think the anchor didn't even know that food wastage was so high in the US. Why it is important to look at Wal-mart's role is because half of the fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets go waste, according to the NRDC study.
Anyway, where has this figure of 40% food wastage in India come from? As a student of agriculture, some 30 years ago, I remember my teachers would often quote this figure. And I find that 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 KV Thomas uses it and, of course, 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 Rahul Gandhi going a step ahead and saying that 60-70% food gets wasted.
Thanks to the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET) at Ludhiana, the mist has finally been cleared. Based on a nationwide 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 varying from 5.8% (in sapota) to a maximum of 18% (for guava). In vegetables, cauliflower has the minimum loss at 6.8%, while tomato faces 12.4% loss.
Wastage for other items is much less. For crops, it is between 3.9-6%, cereals 4.3-6.1%, pulses 4.3-6.1%, oilseeds 6%, meat 2.3%, fish 2.9% and poultry 3.7%. These figures are much lower than the imaginative 40% food wastage figure that is being tossed around. In fact, India fares much better than the United States. Against 50% of fruits and vegetables perishing in supermarkets alone, wastage of fruits and vegetables in India hover between 5.8% to a maximum of 18%. In case of cereals, wastage in case of wheat and rice is amazingly low at 4.3-6.1%. What we consider wastage, I am sure ensures the food security of birds and animals.
Probably, the US and Europe have a lot to learn from India in reducing wastage of food.
(The writer is a food and trade policy analyst. He can be contacted at email@example.com)