Thought for food: on efforts to prevent food waste

We need to hasten efforts to prevent food waste, at the consumer household level and in the supply chain

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:21 pm IST

Published - May 31, 2017 12:05 am IST

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of the unfortunate paradoxes of our lives today is that despite adequate food production and unimaginable advances in technology, one in three persons worldwide is not getting enough of the right food to eat and approximately 800 million of seven billion sleep hungry every night. Not surprisingly, this makes poor diet the No. 1 risk factor by far, for the global burden of disease. Poor diets globally are more responsible for ill health as compared with the combined effect of drugs, tobacco and alcohol. Women and children continue to be the most vulnerable, with 156 million stunted children in the world and 40% women anaemic. Add to this the fact that the world adds 200,000 new people to its population every day, of which India adds 58,000. This translates to the need to feed two billion more people by 2050 and to support a higher demand for major crops, estimated to increase by 50%, from 2.5 to 3.5 billion tonnes.

Staying on target

It is therefore with compelling reason that Target 3 for the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 is to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains including post-harvest losses”. Food loss is valued at $1 trillion globally by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, enough to feed the 800 million who sleep hungry every night. Of this, over 200 million are in India, a country that grows sufficient food to feed its burgeoning population of 1.3 billion.


The SDGs have clearly put the spotlight on food loss and waste, and we are beginning to see more attentive discussion on the subject. At the recently held Food Congress in Dusseldorf in early May 2017, the focus was on identifying possible solutions for both — through better farming practices, use of technology, better information, change in consumer behaviour, etc. Estimates of “food waste and food loss” range between 30 and 50% for both developed and emerging countries.

In developed countries “food waste” happens more at the consumer household level, where more is purchased than consumed; and in emerging economies, it is the supply chain that leads to “food loss” during harvest, storage or in transit, largely due to poor infrastructure and inadequately aligned processes. As an example, India’s cold storage requirement is 66 million tonnes, and the national storage capacity currently available is approximately 30 million tonnes. Investment in creating adequate cold storage capacity alone will stem food loss substantially. With increasing wealth, India is, ironically, home to both food waste and food loss.

In either scenario, food that is produced (using depleting and critical resources such as water) but not consumed is a colossal waste which we cannot afford to ignore. Food loss is also nutrition loss, productivity loss and therefore GDP loss. The 40% food loss in India translates to approximately $7.5 billion, and for a country where agriculture contributes 15% to GDP and employs 53% of the workforce, this is clearly unaffordable.

These are serious statistics, and unless there is an effort to address food loss factors systemically, the state of health and nutrition of our people will continue to be inadequate, as food loss means loss of macronutrients such as calories, fats, proteins; but even more alarming, it means loss of micronutrients because foods that are rich in micronutrients are also perishable — fruits, vegetables, poultry, fish, dairy, etc. Additionally, with urbanisation and rising incomes, the length of the food value chain also increases, as what people eat becomes less and less connected to where they live.


The Global Nutrition Report 2016 has highlighted India’s overall tardy progress in addressing chronic undernutrition, manifest in stunting (low weight for age), wasting (low weight for height) and micronutrient deficiency or “hidden hunger”.

With 17% of the world’s population, India remains home to a quarter of the world’s undernourished people, a third of the world’s underweight children and a quarter of the world’s hungry. This demographic cannot possibly result in a productive and efficient workforce, or be converted into any meaningful economic dividend. The World Happiness Report 2017, which looks at quality of people’s life beyond GDP and per capita income and includes economic variables, social factors and health indicators, has ranked India at 122 of 155 countries. India’s decline in 2014-16, compared with 2005-07, is on account of poor and slow progress on social factors and health indicators.

Agriculture has to be one of the drivers of India’s growth, and even though we are the world’s third largest producer of food, our agriculture growth has fallen well below the targeted 4% over the last 15 years. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, India needs to at least double its investment in agricultural research to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. This will not happen only with a focus on rice and wheat — more diversity is needed, with the addition of vegetables, fruits and dairy farming.

Harnessing technology to increase agricultural productivity, where we lag both our potential and competitive benchmarks will be critical to our overall well-being. As an example, since the 1960s India’s groundwater irrigation has increased dramatically, and since the 1980s groundwater levels have been dropping, thus stressing the system. Groundwater recharge therefore becomes a critical variable to augment agricultural productivity. Further, imports of agricultural commodities have increased from 4% of GDP in 2008-09 to 5.5% of GDP in 2013-14, according to the Economic Survey. Edible oil imports alone in the last year cost us ₹65,000 crore ($10 billion). This need not be the case in future.

Dignified quality of life

To provide even a baseline and dignified quality of life to its people, India has to address enhancing agricultural productivity, crop diversification and eliminating food loss and waste with a firm resolve, backed with the right and timely action. The last must be done on priority as it deals with food already available. So the key question is, how do we minimise food loss given that the government wants this, businesses want this, and people want this?

There is clearly a structural and behavioural component to this, and the door is open for investment in food system infrastructure: storage, transportation, processing, etc; investment in information systems that help identify loss by crop and region so solutions can be specifically tailored to the problem; use of technology to better connect supply and demand; public-private partnerships with companies to reduce spoilage and loss; creation of food banking networks that work with civil society and development agencies on getting food already available to those that need it. Among the several priorities we have, minimising food loss has the potential to be transformative in multiple ways.

Vinita Bali is chair, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. Views expressed are personal.

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