Seldom has so much attention been paid to cutting down post-harvest crop losses as is being done now. Yet, such losses remain untenably high, depriving the country of not only valuable farm produce, but also of precious resources like water, energy, cash inputs and farmers’ effort that go into its production. The losses begin at the farmers’ fields and continue till the food reaches the consumers — referred typically as post-harvest losses. However, the destruction of food does not end there. Substantial amounts go waste even after cooking. Significantly, while the spoilage of raw crop output is sought to be curtailed through expansion of post-production value-chain of storage, transportation, marketing and processing, the wastage of cooked food is getting largely overlooked.
A nationwide study of post-production losses of 45 major food items, including cereals, fruits, vegetables, fisheries and livestock products, has put these losses at around 65 million tonnes worth over Rs 92,651 crore a year at 2014 prices. Conducted under the all-India coordinated research project on post-harvest engineering and technology, this study had found that the maximum wastage is in vegetables and fruits, up to 15.88 per cent, and the minimum in milk, around 0.9 per cent. The damage to marine fisheries products is also quite high at 10.5 per cent.
In the absence of a similar authentic assessment of the spoilage of cooked food, it is hard to hazard the precise extent of deprivation on this count. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that these losses, in value terms, may be more than those of the raw crop output. Maximum wastage of the cooked food occurs at marriages and parties, followed by hotels and restaurants. Interestingly, even intellectual gatherings, workshops and seminars squander large quantities of prepared food. Little wonder, then, that India is believed to waste more food than is produced in many countries.
The spoliation of raw food at the field level is attributable largely to rough and old-fashioned methods of harvesting and on-farm mishandling of the produce. “Farm commodities are like new-born babies; they require tender care to reduce mortality”, maintains S N Jha, assistant director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. This is particularly true of fruits and vegetables which are generally plucked manually without the use of clippers or other modern tools. This tends to cause external or internal injuries to the products. Moreover, these crops, harvested under hot sun, are often not allowed to cool down before being graded, packed or transported out of the fields, thus further shortening their shelf life. Considerable quantities are ruined even in cold stores as commodities not compatible with each other are kept in the same chambers at the same temperature and humidity, he points out.
Regrettably, these seemingly minor, yet implications-wise major, issues are generally not being attended to under most ongoing post-harvest food management programmes. Many of the existing schemes are focused more on value-addition through processing than on loss mitigation through scientific handling of food at every stage of its journey from the farm to the fork. Special awareness and technology transfer drives are, therefore, needed to address this issue.
Similarly, organised action is imperative also to save the wastage of prepared food which can conveniently be fed to the undernourished and hungry. Private companies and industrial houses can play a useful role in this field under their corporate social responsibility obligations. The government can also incentivise them to do so by offering fiscal and other sops. They can organise collection of superfluous food from social events to supply to orphanages, homes for beggars, night shelters and other such places.
Some countries, including the rich ones, have put legal sanctions against wasting food. France, for instance, has barred supermarkets from destroying unsold or unconsumed food and has mandated them to donate it to charities. India, too, could have incorporated something like this into its right to food law. It is perhaps not too late even now to amend the Food Security Act, 2013, to impose some well-judged curbs on food wastage.