FOOD WASTAGE, CLIMATE CHANGE, HUNGER: THE NEED FOR ACTION
– Vidushi Gupta (NLSIU, V Year)
DID YOU KNOW?
- 17% of the food produced globally for human consumption is wasted at the consumer level every year.
- One-third of all food in India is wasted or gets spoilt before it is eaten and ends up in the bin.
- More than 22 crore Indians sleep hungry every night.
- All these problems are connected to climate change and justice.
Well, read on!
We all know that food is one of the most basic requirements of life, necessary for human survival, and affects all kinds of people around the world. Hence, food security and justice have been globally recognised as one of the most pressing problems that we face today. However, what we often fail to acknowledge is how crucial the issue of food wastage is and how urgently we need to address it.
This article aims to bring about awareness and recognition of the problem of food wastage and its various aspects among the citizens in India and encourage them to initiate action at an individual level to mitigate food wastage, by suggesting certain steps in this regard.
WHAT CONSTITUTES FOOD WASTAGE?
As per the United Nations Environment Programme’s Food Waste Index Report 2021, ‘food waste’ refers to food (raw/semi-processed/processed substances intended for human consumption, including drinks, and any substance used in the manufacture, preparation or treatment of food) and the associated inedible parts (such as bones, pits/stones, eggshells), removed from the human food supply chain in the manufacturing, retail, service, and household sectors. This means that the wasted food ends up at the landfill, sewer, litter/discards/refuse, compost sites, etc.
Food wastage is different from food loss, which refers to the crop and livestock human-edible commodity quantities lost through the supply chain between the farmer and the retailer levels, due to problems during production, harvest, storage, packaging, and transport, including logistical and infrastructural issues such as inefficient/inadequate storage facilities and techniques, structures for safe handling and shelf-life enhancement, process protocols, training, lack of comprehensive and accurate inventories, etc.
On the other hand, food waste refers to food products that are thrown away in the trash can intentionally at the consumer’s end.
RELATION WITH CLIMATE CHANGE
Higher temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events are already impacting food systems (by affecting crop yields) and increasing the risk of disruption of production and supply of food all over the world. Wastage of food adds to these problems as it causes wastage of the natural and physical resources utilised to prepare the food. This means that the land, air, water, energy used for production, harvest, processing, transport, packaging, storage, and disposal of the wasted food are wasted as well.
Food wastage also increases the amount of garbage and leads to greater burden on waste management and disposal systems. Around 10-12% of the garbage generated in India is food waste. This results in harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and creates a high carbon footprint, which in turn contributes to climate change. If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of GHG emissions on the planet. This is because food waste is dumped in landfill sites or composted etc., which leads to the release of toxic gases and GHG, bad odour, and environmental (air, soil, water) pollution.
Thus, food waste is a major contributor to the triple crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. This is recognised under Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which deals with sustainable production and consumption patterns, and aims to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels by 2030.
WHY IS FOOD WASTAGE A ‘JUSTICE’ ISSUE?
Sustainable Development Goal 2 aims to end hunger and achieve food security worldwide. The Indian Constitution also guarantees its citizens the Right to Health under Article 21 and requires the State to improve the level of nutrition among the people. India has made significant progress in human development over the past 70 years. However, as per the Global Hunger Index 2022, India ranks 107th out of 121 countries, and the level of hunger and undernutrition in the country is now at “serious” levels. A staggering 214 million people suffer from chronic food insecurity, representing 17% of the country’s total population. One in three malnourished children in the world lives in India.
Thus, a huge number of people in India are food-deprived, despite India being one of the largest producers of milk, pulses, wheat, and other critical food items in the world. This is in part due to the high levels of wastage of food in India, which has grave repercussions on the quantity, quality, accessibility, availability and affordability of safe, nutritious and healthy food, thereby triggering the traps of hunger, malnutrition and ill-health. Adverse impacts are borne disproportionately by the vulnerable majority (including women, urban poor), due to the wastage habits of the rich and privileged few, resulting in inequity.
It has been noted that a third of the world’s entire current food supply could be saved by reducing waste. This would be enough to meet the nutritional needs of three billion people.
Thus, the issue of widespread food wastage has major impacts on society, the environment and the economy, as it sits at the intersection of climate change, development, human rights, and sustainability of food systems worldwide.
THE NEED TO MINIMIZE HOUSEHOLD FOOD WASTAGE IN INDIA
Given the above discussion, it seems imperative to minimize wastage of the food produced to the greatest possible extent, even more so due to the exploding population around the world leading to growing food demand. However, enormous amount of food is wasted worldwide every year at various levels. In fact, global food waste from households, retail establishments, and the food service industry totals 931 million tonnes each year. Alarmingly, nearly 570 million tonnes (61%) of this waste occurs at the household level.
In India too, major generators of food wastage include hotels, hostels, restaurants, cafes, supermarkets, residential blocks, airlines cafeterias, and food processing and manufacturing industries. However, around 68.76 million tonnes of food is wasted annually in Indian homes, which translates to 7% of the global total and around 50 kg of household food waste per capita. Reasons include inappropriate purchasing, bad storage conditions, over-preparation, socio-demographic factors, consumption behaviour and patterns in the face of increased income and more food choices etc. Thus, households are one of the largest producers of food waste in the world.
Therefore, there is a dire need for the people in India to take steps and initiate behavioural changes voluntarily in their personal lifestyles at the individual and household level, in order to reduce food wastage as much as possible and tackle this wicked problem.
THE WAY FORWARD – WHAT CAN YOU DO TO REDUCE FOOD WASTAGE?
Although food wastage cannot be entirely eliminated, there is scope for minimizing it to a great extent. However, you might say food wastage is too vast an issue for individuals to address and might ask, ‘What can I even do about it?’ The answer is – much can be done, starting from stopping food from being wasted in your own household and kitchen.
Here are some of the steps that YOU, as a consumer, can take –
A. Buy Food Carefully
- Be a conscious shopper and buy your food items sensibly. Cook or eat what you already have at home before buying more.
- Plan your weekly menu/list before you go shopping and only purchase things that are actually needed in the required quantities. Do not buy food items for more than a week.
- Do not buy in bulk or excess, and avoid getting tempted by promotional offers like ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ deals that are designed to make you buy more. You may think that you will save money, but often the food items spoil or, expire before you can use them. REMEMBER – The market isn’t going anywhere and it needs consumers like you to keep purchasing things. The discounts will return, and you can always go back again to buy more, in case you need it.
- Before buying, check the package and look for the use-by, best-by, and expiration dates, to know if you will be able to consume the food in time.
- Do not refuse to buy consumable fruits and vegetables, etc., simply because they have an imperfect, ugly or asymmetrical appearance.
B. Consume Food Smartly – DON’T HASTE TO WASTE
- Do not leave food unfinished on your plate.
- If you are unsure of the taste, take a small bite/helping to try the food Don’t throw away food simply because you don’t like the taste.
- At restaurants, weddings, buffets, parties etc., do not order/take more food than you can consume. Take a second helping, if you need it. You do not have the right to waste food just because you have ‘paid’ for it.
- Be mindful of the portion sizes when you are planning, cooking, serving, and eating/ordering food. Use small plates to eat food.
- When eating out, take home the leftovers and use them for your next meal.
- Avoid taking part in food challenges/competitions or ordering humongous dishes at restaurants (for instance, the Bahubali thali), which are just publicity stunts for advertisement purposes and lead to the wastage of huge amounts of food.
- Be creative in using the inedible parts of your food. For instance, use peels of citrus fruits for making cleaning liquids, etc.
- Try to achieve a zero-waste kitchen to the extent possible. Use and cook all parts of fruits/vegetables (stems, peels, rinds, etc.) innovatively, to make chips, soups, stocks, jams, dishes etc. The generally-discarded parts are often the most nutritious as well (for instance, jackfruit seeds are high in protein).
You can also explore some delicious zero-waste recipes here and here. You are encouraged to explore and share such recipes as widely as possible.*
C. Store and Preserve Food Properly
- Be aware of how to store the food items, to increase their shelf life. Even if you buy some food items in bulk, store them properly in airtight, safe, and labelled containers. Don’t hoard food unnecessarily, as inadequate storage can ruin the food products.
- Freeze surplus food before it starts getting stale. Optionally, a record of everything in the freezer could be pasted on the freezer door for easy management.
- Do not leave perishable food items at room temperature for long durations.
- Store and consume food items in the order of their purchase, i.e., place older items or items near expiry in the front and use them before others.
D. Give Away and Donate Food – SHARE FOOD, SHARE JOY!
- A significant portion of the food binned is still in edible condition and can feed thousands of people. Hence, share and distribute surplus food between neighbours, friends, co-workers, etc. instead of throwing it away.
- Installing community fridges near residential societies and retail outlets is a good way of providing free access to extra food to the needy.
- Give leftover table or kitchen scraps to animals (birds, cows, dogs etc.) on the street.
- Donate safe and untouched leftover food from parties, functions etc. to food banks, charity organisations, local labourers for free, so that food is redistributed to the hungry. REMEMBER – Somebody’s waste is somebody’s wealth. You can spread happiness through small acts of compassion.
Details of some organisations working towards food collection and redistribution, registered under the FSSAI’s Indian Food Sharing Alliance (IFSA) initiative can be found here. These include No Food Waste, Robin Hood Army, and Roti Bank.*
E. Attitudinal Changes
- Consider food to be sacred and feel blessed to have it. Save every morsel.
- Treat wasting food as a sinful, irresponsible and socially unacceptable act. Think twice before throwing food.
- Remind young children and other people around you not to waste their food because millions of other children like them do not get enough to eat.
- Don’t encourage mukbang culture and dislike or quit watching such videos on social media platforms.
- Embrace frugality and consume sustainably.
Adoption of these easy-to-implement and efficient steps, by tweaking our current food habits, can help us go a long way in the reduction of food wastage. This, in turn, can have multiple benefits, including increased savings due to reduced expenditure on food; poverty alleviation; economic development; more just, inclusive, and equitable food systems; and enhanced food security for the disadvantaged and marginalised people through the redistribution of food resources in the long term. It can also lead to the mitigation of climate change and improved environmental health and sustainability. Thus, we as people can join hands and take small steps together to create self-sufficient and resilient food systems and make our country and planet a better place to live.
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For further reading on the issue of food wastage – Tristram Stuart, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009).*
*DISCLAIMER – Please note that the author is not endorsing any of the recipes, organisations, or other resources, the details of which have been shared within the article. These have been provided only for the benefit of the readers. The author does not assume any liability for the same.