Food Loss : The Ignored Elephant in the Room

According to current estimates, India’s total population will reach 1.45 billion by 2028, similar to China’s, and 1.7 billion by 2050. Given that India is already struggling to feed its population, its current food crisis could worsen significantly in the coming decades. According to the 2015 Global Hunger Index (GHI), India ranks 80th, out of the 104 hungriest countries, significantly worse than neighbouring Nepal (58th), Sri Lanka (69th) and Bangladesh (73rd). This makes food loss and waste a critical action item for India.

India as well as large parts of the world suffers from hunger and malnutrition. Not only does it hurt the conscience but it also has financial costs in terms of lost revenue as well an environmental cost since food waste in landfills also contributes to global warming.

We tend to think of food waste as merely as unconsumed food. However, food waste can be seen in a much wider context. FAO recognises the following sources of food waste:

1. Agricultural production: losses due to mechanical damage and/or spillage during harvest operation (e.g., threshing or fruit picking), crops sorted out post-harvest, etc.

2. Post-harvest handling and storage: including losses due to spillage and degradation during handling, storage and transportation between farm and distribution.

3. Processing: including losses due to spillage and degradation during industrial or domestic processing, e.g., juice production, canning and bread baking. Losses may occur when crops are sorted out if not suitable to process or during washing, peeling, slicing and boiling or during process interruptions and accidental spillage.

4. Distribution: including losses and waste in the market system, at e.g. wholesale markets, supermarkets, retailers and wet markets.

5. Consumption: including losses and waste during consumption at the household level.
What is the world doing about food waste?
Although consumption accounts for only about 22% of the food waste the focus on consumption level food waste is mainly because it contributes roughly 37% of the carbon footprint across the supply chain. This is the highest is the entire supply chain. Due to wasteful food distribution and consumption patterns in high income countries per capita food waste footprint on climate in high income countries is more than double that of low income countries.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12 (SDG 12) on “Ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns” includes a specific food waste reduction target: “by 2030, to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses”. Thus, countries and companies need to get their act together so that these goals become achievable.

Many international initiatives are also working towards this.

The Champions 12.3, is coalition of executives from governments, businesses, international organisations, research institutions, farmer groups, and civil society dedicated to inspiring ambition, mobilising action, and accelerating progress toward achieving SDG Target 12.3 by 2030.

Another initiative announced in Davos, is a $130 million project of the Rockefeller Foundation (also a member of Champions 12.3), which will largely target post-harvest spoilage of food in sub-Saharan Africa. Both the initiatives focus on farm-to-fork food waste – that is, food that’s lost or discarded along supply chains.

And, what about India?
It is seen that a high proportion of the food that India produces never reaches consumers. According to government estimates, food worth $8.3 billion, or nearly 40% of the total value of annual production, is wasted. This does not tell the full story. It is estimated that meat accounts for about 4% of food wastage but 20% of the costs, while 70% of fruit and vegetable output is wasted, accounting for 40% of the total cost . This results in higher prices food products.

Yet the attention to food loss and food waste in India has been close to nothing. Indian companies have a lot to gain by reducing losses in their supply chain. Some of the efforts could be focussed on:

Infrastructure: Invest in quality storage and transportation in a manner that keeps food safe and improves speed to consumer. For instance instead of keeping food in jute bags that do not keep away moisture or prevent rodents low-cost storage bags can help reduce this loss. There is also a need for small, low cost, multipurpose storage units made from locally available materials. Companies can adopt these practices and also encourage others to do the same.

Improve/Develop cold chains: Build modern food chains that reduce food wastage due to rotting and damage. This will make more food available to all. This may have an added advantage of helping reduce food price by increasing their supply. This is where companies are already doing some work but much more needs to be done.

Processing: Efforts should be made to reduce food loss during processing. A small change here can reap rich dividends. This is an area that can help companies by reducing costs as well as contributing to society.

Information management and planning: There is a need for mobile based system that will aid farmers in making decisions using inputs like; what other farmers are doing, weather forecasts, local and global demand and supply projections. This would tame the effects of oversupply of certain foods and their loss due to non-saleability. This is a large opportunity waiting for mobile, internet and data analytics companies to come together and aid society.

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Written by : Namrata Rana and Utkarsh Majmudar