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Mist clears on 40 per cent food wastage

Oct 01, 2012

A nation-wide study by the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology has come up with surprisingly low figures for food wastage for 46 agricultural produces in India. This contrasts with the 40 per cent figure being quoted for food wastage while arguing for FDI in retail.

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Sometimes, when I am finished with my meal at a marriage ceremony and go out to throw my patal (made from leaves) in the dustbin, I watch with great regret and concern when a team of urchins would descend to look for leftovers. After these children are done away with, I find the dogs moving in. At the same time I can spot a number of crows waiting for their turn.

The clamour for food security extends beyond us, the well-to-do.

What we therefore consider as food wastage becomes essential to meet the food security needs of not-so-lucky, and also that of the animals and birds. I have always therefore wondered whether food actually goes waste. I still find my mother providing a handful of kneaded wheat to the cows every morning, and also leave aside some chapatis for the dogs after dinner. What she does it so religiously is actually aimed at ensuring food security for the animals. Indian religion teaches us compassion and to believe in sharing and caring.

This however does not mean that food does not get waste. In America and Canada, 40 per cent food is wasted, much of it at the household level. The landfills are full of stale food, adding greenhouses gases. There are studies which have computed the food wastage in the US, including this NRDC study. In fact, the other day on a TV show on FDI in retail the anchor asked me would FDI not help reduce the 40 per cent wastage we have in fruits and vegetables. My reply was that first I don't buy these figures, and secondly how can Wal-Mart curb food wastage when it has not been able to do so in America where 40 per cent food gets wasted. I think the anchor didn't even know that food wastage was so high in the US.

Nevertheless, where has this figure of 40 per cent food wastage in India come from? As a student of agriculture, some 30 years back, I remember my teachers would often quote this figure. And I find even now the same figure is being nauseatingly used again and again simply to justify FDI in retail. Prime Minister uses it, Food Minister K V Thomas too uses it, and of course the Wal-Mart Minister Anand Sharma has to use it. FICCI/CII have been playing it up. But now I find Rahul Gandhi going a step ahead and saying 60-70 per cent food gets wasted !

Sometimes back, FICCI had commissioned a study on food wastage that also came up with the imaginative figure of 40 per cent. Speak a lie a hundred times and it becomes a truth, isn't it?

The Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering & Technology (CIPHET) at Ludhiana has finally cleared the mist. Based on a nation-wide study to make quantitative assessment of harvest and post-harvest losses for 46 agricultural produces in 106 randomly selected districts in 2010, showed wastage in fruits to vary between 5.8 (in Sapota) to a maximum of 18 per cent (for Guava). In vegetables, cauliflower has the minimum loss at 6.8 per cent while tomato faces 12.4 per cent loss.

Wastage for other items was much lower. For crops (3.9 to 6 per cent), cereals (4.3 to 6.1 per cent), pulses (4.3-6.1 per cent), oilseeds (6 per cent), meat (2.3 per cent), fish (2.9 per cent) and poultry (3.7 per cent).

These figures are much lower than the imaginative 40 per cent food wastage figure that is being tossed around. It only goes to show how we hype the crop losses to benefit the industries. This is primarily the reason why most Indian policies fail to deliver. If the foundation is faulty, based incorrect figures and estimates, the policy too will be faulty. Lots of people blame implementation to be the cause for tardy progress. I blame the wrong policies to be the primary cause for this lop-sided development.

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