By Avik Chattopadhyay
Despite close to 14% of India’s population, at around 190 million people going hungry every day, the country is accounted for 68.7 million tonnes of food waste every year by every household. Every Indian is accountable for 50 kgs of food wasted every year. A huge number of Indians are responsible for food waste and hence, for the pain of hunger of a large number of the country’s population as well.
Disturbing image, right? But this is not the first time we have casually walked or driven past people like us scavenging through municipal trash bins and waste collection dumps for a morsel of food without batting an eyelid.
So, as we are in the middle of festivities of the Hindu new year and the month of Ramzan, I thought it most appropriate to write about food wastage in India and how our eating habits can be both empathetic as well as environmentally sustainable.
Every day close to 190 million Indians go hungry, which is close to 14% of the country’s population~ UN FAO
On the 31st of January this year in the “Mann ki Baat” address, the Prime Minister mentioned and lauded the Bowenpally Market of Hyderabad for converting 10 tonnes of food and vegetable waste EVERY DAY into biogas producing 500 units of electricity. While this sustainable initiative is sure to be lauded, what he did not bother with was the fact that so much of produce was getting wasted when so many mouths could have been fed from the same. Our Pradhan Sevak too conveniently just walked past a harsh and inconvenient truth!
India needs close to 230 million tonnes of food products to feed every citizen of the country and it produces close to 270 million tonnes.
The UN FAO says that every day close to 190 million Indians go hungry. That is close to 14% of our population. Is it because we produce less than we need, going by the historical trend of importing wheat every year from the US? We need close to 230 million tonnes of food products to feed ALL of us and we produce close to 270 million tonnes! Then why the imports and why the hungry?
Roughly 40% of India’s annual food production is allowed to rot every year.
Even after 70+ years of independence, we have not yet put the infrastructure to move products across the country in a smooth manner, using a hub-and-spoke system and with proper storage facilities. We have ambitions of reaching Mars but not Manipur, which is the third poorest state in India. Roughly 40% of our annual production is allowed to rot every year. And the famed Public Distribution System is as archaic as ever as if Digital India and Skill India were not meant for it. Remember the hue and cry in the early months of the pandemic when governments forced the centre to open up the FCI warehouses storing a whopping 6.5 million tonnes of grains for migrant and jobless labour going back home?
Second, we Indians waste a huge amount of food! The 2021 UN Environment Programme “Food Waste Index” shows that India is second only to China in annual household food waste, at 68.7 million tonnes, working out to 50 kgs of food wasted by every Indian every year!!! This is absolutely shocking and has deep implications for the social imbalance we live in. With 190 million going hungry every day and assuming another 500 million live on a single proper meal a day, the culprits are us 600 million or possibly even lesser who are insensitively wasting food.
India is second only to China in annual household food waste, at 68.7 million tonnes, working out to 50 kgs of food wasted by every Indian every year.~ UNEP
Wasting food at home is an combination of factors and mindsets.
One, if we can afford, we tend to hoard food, at the cost of others who might need produce more than we do.
Second, we cook typically more than what is required in terms of daily nutritional input as we have this obsession with over-feeding our children, and even ourselves. Having a spread of dishes at every meal is a sign of success and status. We “wasters” tend to over-eat at every meal not realising that the body can only absorb what it needs, and the rest is waste. Obesity is a growing issue in India not just due to junk / fast food but also a lot of junk made and consumed at home.
Over-eating or “binge-eating” is a problem in China too where challenge shows are held, and such videos are hugely popular as overt displays of wealth. Termed “mukbang”, the Chinese government has come down heavily on this social practice issuing a directive last week.
Third, we do not believe in recycling food over multiple meals. Again born out of this sense of status, there are communities that take pride in eating only fresh food with the left-overs being trashed every day. The concept of fresh cooking was when we had no proper means of storage and re-heating keeping the nutrients almost intact. The same luxury cannot be followed in the cities and towns today.
Fourth and last, most of our food preparation methods and styles lead to wastage. This has been very well taken up as a socio-cultural issue by Thomas Zacharias in a recent article he wrote in The Indian Express. There are some parts of the country where the very method ensures near-complete utilization of a food resource, be it a banana plant or a goat. Being a Bengali, I have seen every part of the banana tree being delectably devoured. When radishes come home, the leaves are never wasted and used in preparing some amazing delicacies.
How you prepare your food, some cultures say, is a demonstration of how evolved your civilization is. How less you waste should be a demonstration of how long that civilization will survive!
Amidst all these festivities, when the Covid forces you to stay at home and possibly eat more than you actually need, just look out of your window towards the municipal waste bin.
Inspired by the lyrics of a song that needs no introduction…
“Hello hunger, my old friend
I’ve been afflicted with you again
Because some have been over-eating
Leftovers trashed while I was sleeping
And my tryst with the waste bin planted in my brain
In a life of imbalance”