In a world where we waste more than we consume, the theme for World Environment Day, 2013 is rightly Think. Eat. Save, writes Akila Kannadasan

The kitchen was the most overused room in my great-grandparents’ house in Madurai. It catered to four families in the 1980s. Vegetables were bought by the kilo. Plenty was cooked and at the end of the day, there was always surplus. However, the women devised means of preventing food waste. Before going to bed, they simmered the day’s kuzhambu on the stove till it thickened. They also soaked leftover rice in water. This ‘pazhaya sadham’ and ‘sunda kuzhambu’ was eaten for breakfast. Food was never wasted because as people from an agricultural background, they knew what it took to produce it.

Today, most of us don’t even spare a thought for the time, energy, and resources it takes to produce our food. We generate mammoth amounts of food waste — according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) website, “Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.” To drive home the message of sustainable consumption and the need to prevent food waste, the UNEP celebrates this year’s World Environment Day (June 5) with the theme ‘Think. Eat. Save’.

“People do not think about what goes into the food on their table,” says G. Sivaraman of Poovulagin Nanbargal. Embedded inside every agricultural produce, is a hidden quantity of ‘virtual water’ that was used to raise it. “To grow 1 kg of rice, we require over 2,500 litres of water. But for millets, we would need only five to 10 litres.” A thought for our choice of food will save our natural resources and also keep us healthy.

Why not eat locally produced mangoes instead of kiwis from New Zealand or oranges from Madagascar, asks Dr. Sivaraman. Eating fresh produce from our homeland will support our farmers. The UNEP states that in developing countries, “Food waste and losses occur mainly at early stages of the food value chain.” This is due to “financial, managerial and technical constraints in harvesting techniques as well as storage — and cooling facilities.” T. Thiruvankatam, a farmer from Perumpathy near Pollachi, agrees. He says that he loses 30 per cent of his produce due to issues related to transportation. “Vegetables such as tomatoes get damaged when they are stacked in lorries,” he says. “Though this can’t be helped, it is a big problem for us.” Cold-storage can prevent fruits and vegetables from decaying before they reach the market, he feels. “The Tamil Nadu Government has announced that they will provide cold-storage facilities for farmers. This will help us preserve our produce for over a period of time.”

Food wastage is a major problem in India. Weddings, canteens, hotels and households spew out so much food. To see the extent of damage, all you have to do is peek into a street-corner garbage bin. “Spend some time with me and you can see how much food people throw away everyday,” says Esther, a road maintenance worker in Teynampet. “It’s heart-breaking. I see people dump sackfuls of rice and grains. And vegetables too…they let them decay in the fridge for days and dump them.”

On the contrary, people from low-income groups rarely waste food. S. Kalimuthu, a Corporation executive engineer at Thiruvottriyur in Chennai, says that people in his area, most of whom are labourers, do not waste food. Ilango, the zonal officer for Manali says the same. “My zone consists of people who struggle for food. They cook as per requirement and reuse excess.”

The simplest method to prevent food waste, says Sivaraman, is to cook limited quantities. Tender coconut seller Senthil offers another solution. “Give away what you don’t eat to those who need it,” he says. “On an average I waste flesh from about 50 tender coconuts everyday. Some customers refuse to eat the coconut. I try convincing them to eat it — I tell them coconut is good for ulcer.” But people don’t always listen. That’s when Senthil packs his leftovers and gives them away to the less privileged, free of cost.