Environmental, economic, social – the impacts of food wastage are critical, and the causes aplenty. Whilst the early 20th century grieved over food security, urbanisation, increased revenues, and globalisation of commerce have fuelled the concern of the hour – food wastage. From farm to warehouse to fork, the phenomenon seeps into every stage of the food supply chain. Exploiting oblivion, ignorance, and acceptance of the situation, food wastage continues to reign.
“Food wastage is an ongoing crime against hunger, the environment, efficiency, and common sense,” Dana Gunders cited in The Waste Free Kitchen Handbook. While the degree of food wastage at each stage varies with the degree of industrialisation, the plague is a global phenomenon. As developing nations struggle to streamline the agricultural sector, consumer behaviour intensifies the issue in developed nations. From field to consumers, each phase witnesses its own shortcomings.
The battle commences at the farm. As climatic and environmental factors, such as floods and diseases, cause food loss during cultivation and harvest, inappropriate agronomic practices exacerbate the problem. The use of inefficient techniques by farmers during preparation of soil, seeding, and cultivation acts as the weapon for the war. While limited knowledge and resources, need for premature harvests, and persistence of primitive harvesting methods lie at the heart of it. In contrast, when supply exceeds demand or the cost of harvesting appears to be higher than the resultant profits, farmers are known to discard the yield. The produce that isn’t burned or left to rot is further screened by them in fear of rejection by sellers and consumers. In industrialised countries ‘ugly’ produce is often discarded before it even hits the road. According to the United Nations, North America alone witnesses 17 percent of all food wastage at the farm level.
Broken roads, excessive traffic, unnecessary roadblocks – they aren’t just the cause of your daily travel plight. Inadequate transportation infrastructure is a significant cause of food wastage. The unwanted halts, breakdown of trucks, and spillage of goods yielding from improper facilities are a major concern in growing countries. However, the distress isn’t limited to road structure. Unsuitable storage during transport also has an adverse effect on the durability of perishable cargo – particularly when it includes temperature-sensitive food. “Meats, especially seafood, are highly sensitive to temperature and tend to go bad even if they are exposed to high temperature for a few hours. Once the meat changes colour due to loss of temperature, it turns into waste,” shares Angad Singh, Founder and Director of Good To Go. Thermocol boxes, ice gel packs, and dry ice are just a few methods to ensure smooth delivery, albeit not always implemented. “The degree of food wastage depends on the functioning and thought process of the company. With technological advancements in the food industry we should be ensuring that not a single gram of meat is wasted,” adds the zealous gent. A wider view of the battle further showcases the intensity of the issue at hand. As entire shipping containers, while awaiting sale or transport, become infested by pests, food wastage occurs at seismic scales.
Food that manages to get through farming, transportation, and storage barriers enters the processing stage. The European Commission estimates “around 39 percent of all food loss in the food supply chain occurs during manufacturing.” The overzealous selection criteria that discards any food failing to satisfy the stipulated weight, appearance, or packaging permutation – despite fulfilling the safety and nutritional requirements – lays the foundation for it. Forby, manufacturing of large quantities to reduce costs, doesn’t help the cause. “In the end, large batches equal large amounts of food close to the expiry date,” shares Shauravi Malik, Co-Founder of Slurrp Farm. Technical malfunctions and inefficient industrial processes add to the problem. However, superlative production plants where food wastage is part of everyday process are the forces of alarm. With consistency the chief concern, food wastage becomes a byproduct of little significance.
Small-scale vendors, supermarkets, hypermarkets, gourmet stores – the retail sector is a significant contributor of food wastage. According to Food and Agriculture Organization, “At retail level, large quantities of food are wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasise appearance.” ‘Ugly’ produce is time and again rejected in lieu of waxy apples and colour injected watermelons. Elevating the issue, the grandeur of retail stores, while alluring to the consumers, does little to reduce food wastage. The enormous quantities and extensive varieties on display often remain unsold simply due to numbers. As estimating demand is a complex process, one influenced by a plethora of factors, the inventory is frequently returned to manufacturers and primary vendors. “Retailers have a right to return stock, and due to incorrect estimation they end up doing so just before expiry. Waste is inevitable in such a situation, as there is little one can do to plan to use it,” says Shauravi. The economic facet also plays a pivotal at the retail stage. “Specifically in the retail shelf context, food is often made with cheap quality ingredients. In an economic sense, this translates to the outright destruction of large batches of goods close to expiry date becoming the most inexpensive, and therefore favoured, solution,” adds the lady championing sustainable eating through millet and ragi products. The fear of liability hinders retail stores from donating leftovers or products post sell-by date. While the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 protects good faith food donors from civil and criminal liability in the United States of America, many still consider it an unnecessary risk. The law might not exist in India, but the need for action unequivocally does.
With consumption in spotlight, the last leg of the battle hits closer to home. Catering, restaurants, and households, all responsible to an extent of their own. Senior Scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, Dana Gunders shared with Christy Cook, “When it comes to hospitality, there seems to be a moat around a moat to protect against running out of food.” The words are most accurate for catering. When food is sourced and prepared at unnecessarily large scales, leftovers are inevitable. A case study by WRAP suggested, “Over 40 weeks, in England, a total of 55,408 tons of food waste is generated by primary schools.” The catering in hospitals, airlines, schools, and most importantly events, all add to the seismic storm that is food waste. And when the event is a ‘big fat Indian wedding’, aggressive hospitality is the norm. Lavish spreads and bulk preparations, there is no resisting the celebration. University of Agricultural Sciences reported in a research study, “In Bangalore alone, 943 tonnes of food is wasted annually at weddings.”
Preparing food day in and day out, restaurants and hotels exhibit varying levels of food wastage. “In the UK, food waste represents a cost, to the hotel sector, of £318 million each year,” reported WRAP. As the size of the kitchen and operations expand, so does the inventory. While bulk purchases cut down prices, they also make food wastage more susceptible through amplified effects of electrical shortage, infestation, and unregulated usage. Wrongly estimated preparations and ‘damaged’ foods, food spoiled or burned during cooking, further add to the issue at hand. However, if you think that’s where the cycle ends, we’re here to tell you the buck doesn’t stop here. Institution of Mechanical Engineers noted, “Of the quantity that does reach the supermarket shelves, 30 to 50 percent is thrown away by the final purchaser in the home.” WRAP also conducted surveys to conclude, “27 percent of all diners leave food on their plates.” The same study further shared, “59 percent of the people surveyed agreed with the statement – ‘I don’t want to think about leaving food when dining out’ in the United Kingdom.” Additionally, lack of awareness, unplanned shopping, excess preparation, confusion regarding the ‘best before’ date, improper storage, and hypervigilance about the freshness of vegetables amplify the issue of food wastage in households. The onus lies with us, with every individual involved in the food cycle.
Revelation 02 will reveal the unseen and dire side of the food chain and industry – food wastage. Third edition of the four part series, we aim to enable, educate, and encourage individuals to take action.