According to the United Nations Development Programme, up to 40% of the food produced in India is wasted every year. Reportedly, the quantum of food that Indians waste in any given year is equivalent to the amount of food the UK consumes. These figures are all the more shocking for a nation where millions go hungry every day and many more are undernourished. Food wastage occurs at two stages—primary and secondary. The primary stage includes wastage of grains and uncooked food, while the secondary stage encompasses throwing away cooked food prepared at mass gatherings, restaurants, households, weddings, etc. Last year, the government’s Comptroller and Auditor General found that 4.7 lakh tonnes of wheat—valued at `700 crore and meant to be distributed among the poor via the public distribution system—was wasted in Punjab in 2015-16 due to lack of storage facilities. “Our biggest problem is that we don’t know how to manage the glut. I was looking at how the US deals with its surplus. In the past, the US government has bought surplus tomatoes and strawberries from farmers and distributed them in schools. Has that ever happened in our country? Why can’t we move our surplus onion/potato production to schools? There has to be a mechanism to facilitate that kind of transfer which is missing,” says Chandigarh-based agricultural expert Devinder Sharma.
This symbolises a deep problem in a country, where at least 195.9 million people remain undernourished, as per the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation’s report titled State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018. For a developing nation that ranked 100 out of 119 countries on the 2017 Global Hunger Index, the problem of food wastage is one that requires urgent attention. According to a report this year by Boston Consulting Group, by 2030, the annual food loss and waste in the world would hit 2.1 billion tonnes, a staggering increase from the current 1.6 billion tonnes. That wastage would be worth $1.5 trillion against the backdrop of rising inflation, the report adds. “Food loss and waste are projected to increase in most regions around the world, with a significant spike in Asia in particular,” the report adds. While the above figures paint a rather grim picture of the world, and specifically India, there is hope in the form of a few startups and organisations that are working towards ensuring a ‘no-food-waste’ future for the country.
Tech to the rescue
Since the past couple of years, scientists have been working on ways to prevent food wastage. A key, and often ignored, facet contributing to the issue of food wastage is lack of optimum packaging material. Researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, US, have, however, taken a step towards solving that problem by developing ‘super slippery’ packaging—it basically enables consumers to squeeze out every last drop of a food product from the package, reducing food wastage, according to a study published this year. “Small amounts of sticky foods like condiments, dairy products, beverages and some meat products that remain trapped in their packaging can add up to big numbers over time even for a single household,” the study notes. The hydrocarbon-based polymers used in the packaging are not only very slippery, but also self-cleaning, the study adds.
In addition to scientists, entrepreneurs, too, have invaded the space, developing applications and websites to help restaurants manage their surplus food by making it readily available to those in need. One such initiative has been undertaken by Pune-based Sanjeev Neve, who, in 2016, launched Food Dosti app, a comprehensive zero-food-wastage platform that brings together eateries, customers and non-profits. The app provides partner restaurants a platform to ‘publish’ information on the surplus food they have. NGOs and non-profit organisations that have signed up get notifications and can then collect the surplus food, depending on their need. The Food Dosti network has partnered with most restaurants in Pune, its base city, and has now also expanded operations to Mumbai, Neve says. Besides, Food Dosti also rewards customers who visit partner restaurants by giving cashback whenever they finish everything that they order. I t also gives customers the option to order partial portions of food to reduce wastage and lets them order the remaining portion free of cost on their next visit to any partner restaurant.
“We are told all our life that we shouldn’t waste food, but there is no incentive given for it. So we thought that if we incentivise people for not wasting food, that may attract more active action or cooperation from them,” says Neve. In the next eight-10 years, he plans to partner with 200 restaurants in each city across the country. According to Neve, the issue of food wastage originates from ‘lack of respect’ and ‘problem of plenty.’ “Food is not respected that much as it is available easily to people with means… if we go a little deeper, it’s a problem of plenty,” says Neve, adding that the government should guide farmers on what proportion of which crop to grow, so that we only have required proportions of everything and massive quantities are not lost in transit.
Individuals and communities across the country, too, are working towards bringing about change. Minu Pauline, the owner of Kochi-based Pappadavada restaurant, set up a community fridge in 2016, the first in the country, outside the restaurant premises to provide people a medium to donate. Taking cue, Gurugram-based Rahul Khera, too, installed a refrigerator outside his society last year in Sector 54 with the help of other residents. “After our initiative, nearly five such societies in Delhi-NCR also installed a refrigerator outside their societies,” says Khera, an IT professional.
Many first-generation entrepreneurs are also setting up volunteer-led organisations to transport excess food to places and people in dearth. Delhi-based non-profit Feeding India is one such organisation that began operations in April 2014 to work towards the “cause of hunger and food wastage”. The organisation has partnered with around 3,800 shelter homes across the country where it provides food as an incentive to assist people to get out of the poverty cycle. “We give food to people in shelter homes as an incentive to come to school or a skill development centre… the aim is to not make them dependent on us giving them food… that way, they won’t work… the food is given so that these people get out of the poverty cycle eventually,” says Srishti Jain, co-founder, Feeding India.
Robin Hood Army, a volunteer-based organisation, is another frontrunner in this domain, helping surplus food reach the needy with the help of volunteers whom it calls ‘robins’. While Feeding India is present in 65 cities across the country, Robin Hood Army has its presence in over 80 cities globally. Conceived and conceptualised in 2014 by Neel Ghose, Robin Hood Army has tie-ups with restaurants in cities it is operational in. Ghose was inspired by Portugal’s Re-Food Program that has volunteers collecting surplus food from restaurants and distributing it among the needy. Similarly, the ‘robins’ collect food from the food partners and serve it at shelter homes, bastis, to people living under flyovers, outside hospitals, etc. “Our mission is simple: eradicate food wastage and world hunger,” says Aarushi Batra, co-founder, Robin Hood Army.
Another interesting initiative has been taken up by the dabbawallas of Mumbai who are famous the world over for delivering tiffins to around two lakh people daily for the past 125 years. In December 2015, the dabbawallas took up the cause of feeding the needy. Under their ‘Roti Bank’ initiative, the dabbawallas collect surplus and leftover food from weddings, etc, and give it to the hungry and homeless in Mumbai, feeding roughly 150-200 people everyday.
Not just community organisations, hospitality leaders are also working for the cause. From installing water recycling plants to waste converters, they are doing their bit too. In June 2016, ITC Maurya in Delhi set up an on-site waste recycling plant—Bio-Urja—which uses leftover food and minimal water to operate. “Leftover food from the banquet is used in the plant, which is installed on the hotel premises. The gas from it is used in the employee cafeteria as cooking fuel. Soon, it will be a chain-wide initiative,” says Manisha Bhasin, senior executive chef, ITC Maurya, Delhi.
One of the biggest hurdles, however, that organisations like Feeding India and Robin Hood Army admit to facing while setting up base is to convince restaurants and people to come onboard. “In India, there is this stigma associated with jhootha khaana (leftover food)… no one wants to donate that,” says Jain of Feeding India. That, and the problem of lack of awareness, were the biggest hurdles, she says. “Initially, we faced a lot of problems in convincing people to donate food. There were many big corporates that had excess food and yet were reluctant to donate… now, people have become more aware,” Jain adds. Batra of Robin Hood Army agrees: “They (restaurants) weren’t sure where the food was going and it took a little bit of convincing and showing them pictures and selfies we took during our drives,” she adds.
Another challenge they continue to face is the perishable nature of food, especially cooked food that has a higher tendency to turn bad, and hence must be distributed and consumed in a certain time frame. Neve of Food Dosti app has, however, devised a way out. “We have a contractual obligation with NGOs that whenever they collect food, they must upcycle it within two hours. We also have contracts with restaurants that whatever food they give must stay good for at least six hours,” he says. “That gives us enough time to ensure that whatever food is donated is always in a good condition. Also, the non-profit organisations collect food if and only if they have someone to feed right then,” he adds.
Feeding India, on the other hand, works with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to ensure that the food received is fit to be distributed. Even with all the challenges, however, these organisations are going full steam ahead. And they don’t just distribute food, they also work towards educating and empowering those at risk. Feeding India, for one, runs a ‘Poshan to Paathshala’ initiative under which it provides nutritious meals to children during school hours across India, thereby incentivising their attendance at school. They also run awareness workshops, mentoring sessions and computer classes across India for the holistic development of children.
Robin Hood Army, too, started Robin Hood Academy, which provides basic primary education to children it serves food to, in 2016. “We piloted it in one city and expanded our scope to not just educating, but also facilitating admission for these kids in government schools. The idea went down extremely well with other RHA (Robin Hood Army) cities and now we have academies in over 23 cities with 500-plus kids having been admitted into schools,” says Batra. They also help the poor get Aadhaar cards and also organise health camps, providing the poor health checkups.
Problem at procurement level
While all these organisations and initiatives are tirelessly trying to curb the food wastage menace in India, one glaring issue that remains largely unchecked is the post-harvest loss of grains. Year-after-year, a large amount of post-harvest produce gets ‘ruined’ prior to distribution due to lack of proper infrastructure. The Food Corporation of India, the central agency assigned the task of procuring foodgrains from farmers at minimum support price for distribution under the PDS system, has, in fact, faced massive criticism for wastage, misappropriation and fraudulent payments over the years.
From 2012 to 2014, the annual value of harvest and post-harvest losses of India’s major agricultural produce was estimated at `92,651 crore (at average annual prices of 2014), according to a 2015 study by the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET), Ludhiana. Nearly 27% of the cereals—including paddy, wheat, maize, bajra and sorghum—were wasted following production (the value of loss stood at `20,698 crore). In the case of pulses, 29% of pigeon pea, chickpea, black gram and green gram (valued at `3,877 crore) were lost at the post-harvest stage. The estimated loss of oilseeds stood at nearly 33% of the total produce. Losses in fruits ranged from 6.7% in post-harvest produce of papaya to nearly 15.88% in guava produce. “Considerable losses during storage in market channels showed the need for multi-crop storages. Cold chain is essential to reduce the losses of fruits,” the CIPHET study noted. The study also reported that 7% of poultry meat (valued at `3,942 crore) was lost—of this, about 60% was lost during storage.
“After the grains reach the mandi is when the real problem begins. Both the private and government sectors are responsible for the losses that occur at that stage,” says agricultural expert Sharma. “We have the Agricultural Produce Market Committee and its task is to provide a platform for farmers to sell their produce. If a farmer goes there and finds lack of storage facilities and the grains rotting already, who do we blame? There should be a proper policy in place, delegating duties to the government and private sectors, which has not happened in our country.”
In an August 2016 release, the ministry of food processing industries said it had implemented the schemes of mega food parks, integrated cold chain, value addition and preservation infrastructure and setting up/modernisation of abattoirs to curb losses in the supply chain. “The mega food parks scheme aims to provide modern infrastructure for food processing units in the country on a pre-identified cluster basis,” the release noted. “Under the scheme, grant-in-aid is provided at the rate of 50% of the eligible project cost in general areas and 75% thereof in difficult areas and hilly areas, subject to a maximum of `50 crore per project,” it added.
As of the other schemes, the aim of modernisation of abattoirs was to provide hygienic finished meat and its products to consumers. “So far, 41 abattoir projects have been sanctioned,” the release said. The objective of the cold chain, value addition and preservation infrastructure scheme is to arrest post-harvest losses of horticulture and non-horticulture produce and provide remunerative prices to farmers for their produce. “The scheme is primarily private-sector-driven and proposals under this scheme are invited through expression of interest,” the release said.
Union food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, in a recent interview, acknowledged the gravity of the issue of wastage of food grains in the country and called for international collaborations to help tackle it. In India, food gets wasted even before it reaches the plate, she said, as opposed to the West, where wastage occurs at the consumption stage. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, signed memorandums of understanding with Denmark (known for its sustainable food practices and reduced food wastage) in the fields of animal husbandry, food safety and agricultural research, with the aim of taking cues from that country and working on its flaws. Time will tell whether these efforts will bear fruit, but for now, a lot needs to be done on this front.