The spring festival is upon us with its riot of colours, spirit of abandon, joyful meetings and lots of delicacies to gladden the palate. Food melas during Bihu have become a popular attraction in Assam, attracting hordes of visitors to partake of traditiol gastronomic delights as well as experiment with newer ethnic fare. But while indulging our taste buds, it might serve us well to ponder awhile on the adage ‘Waste not, want not’. Prime Minister rendra Modi dwelt on this issue in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ radio address last month, when he exhorted countrymen to take only as much food on their plate as they can eat. Union Minister for Food and Consumer Affairs Ram Vilas Paswan wants to take the food wastage issue farther. His ministry is asking hotels and restaurants what food portions and dish sizes they should serve to a customer. “If a person can eat only two prawns, why should he or she be served six? If a person eats two idlis, why serve four! It’s wastage of food and also money people pay for something that they don’t eat,” Paswan has said. NGOs working to distribute food among the poor have hailed this initiative in a country where feeding the population remains a huge challenge, and have expressed the hope that a central legislation will soon be passed to tackle food wastage. However, associations representing hotels and restaurants are not impressed; while admitting that the thought is noble, they believe the Food Minister’s proposal is ‘highly impractical’. Arguing that every eatery has a different business model, they say that any move to standardise food portions and create uniformity will throw their kitchens into chaos.
But supporters as well as opponents of Paswan’s initiative broadly agree on one thing — that the government’s move to brainstorm with hotels and restaurants is but a small start to reducing food wastage. So how much food does India waste? As much as 67 million tonnes every year, according to a study by the Agriculture ministry’s harvest research body ‘Central Institute of Post Harvest Engineering & Technology (CIPHET)’. To put it into perspective, this is more than the total food Britain grows in a year. The value of the food wasted is over Rs 92,000 crore, which is nearly two-thirds of what it costs the government to feed 60 crore poor Indians with subsidised foodgrain under the tiol Food Security Act (NFSA). India remains among the world’s hungriest countries, ranking a pathetic 97th last year out of 118 countries on the Global Hunger Index (GHI), even behind neighbours Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Is it because India produces less food than the mouths it has to feed? No, says the United tion’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), pointing out that wastage is the culprit. In 2015-16, India’s foodgrain output was a little over 252 million tonnes in a bad monsoon year; the output is expected to be around 270 million tonnes in 2016-17. It is estimated that India needs around 230 million tonnes of food in a year to feed its current population of 125 crore plus population. So our farmers, debt-ridden and starved of inputs, are still producing enough to feed all the country’s people. But sadly, all that food never reaches the consumers.
Former agriculture minister Sharad Pawar once lamented that the country is wasting nearly 40 percent of the total food it grows in a year. Between 2013 and 2015, around 40,000 tonnes of foodgrains were reportedly wasted in FCI godowns. And what accounts for this horrendous if not crimil wastage? It is because the country’s planners have not invested adequately in modern food storage, transportation and distribution chains; there are too few cold storage centres and power supply remains erratic. The result? About 70 percent of the country’s fruit and vegetable output perishes before reaching markets, an estimated 21 million tonnes of wheat (as much as Australia grows in a year) rots or is devoured by pests. Because of this wastage, the poor suffer — it is estimated that fruit and vegetable cost twice than they should otherwise, that milk is 50 percent pricier than it ought to be. So, while any government initiative to cut down on food wastage in eateries is welcome, it will essentially be a baby step. The Centre can take a leaf out of countries like France that has ected laws ensuring supermarkets dote unsold edible food to charities feeding the homeless. Countries like the US, UK and Germany too are seized with this problem. But the larger picture is that India will have to feed 170 crore mouths by 2050, when it will be the most populated tion by far. To be frugal in eating is surely a moral duty of its citizens. But the country’s planners will have to do far better on the infrastructure and food magement fronts in getting food efficiently from the farm to the plate.