How much food does India waste every day?

Gayatri Vinayak
·6-min read
A labourer throws rotten papayas due to lack of customers as a cow stands by at a market during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Amritsar on March 27, 2020.   (Photo by NARINDER NANU / AFP) (Photo by NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images)
A labourer throws rotten papayas due to lack of customers as a cow stands by at a market during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Amritsar on March 27, 2020. (Photo by NARINDER NANU / AFP) (Photo by NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images)

Globally, 931 million tonnes of food waste were generated in 2019, 61 per cent of which came from households (nearly 570 million tonnes), 26 per cent from foodservice and 13 per cent from retail. Indian households wasted around 68.7 million tonnes of food in 2019.

These startling figures on the state of food waste and loss were revealed in the recently released Food Waste Index Report 2021 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report further adds that the global average of 74kg/capita of food wasted each year remains similar across lower-middle-income to higher-income countries – belying the general belief that food wastage is largely limited to the developed nations.

While certain countries such as Slovenia and Austria produce less waste per capita (34 kgs and 39 kg/capita/year), countries where the burden of hunger is very high, such as Nigeria (189 kg/capita/year) and Rwanda (164 kg/capita/year) produce significant amounts of waste.

Food loss and waste is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world – food waste accounts for around 8-10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Food waste burdens the waste management system - as food lies rotting in a landfill, it produces methane gas, a known greenhouse gas. However, the Nationally Determined Contributions which lie at the heart of achieving the long-terms of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change fail to mention food waste and loss.

These figures also prove that the world is way behind its SDG 12.3 target of halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.

The hunger-food waste paradox

What is most shocking is that while millions of tonnes of food lay rotting in landfills or got wasted while in transit, 3 billion people did not have access to safe and nutritious meals in 2019. This is most evident in countries like India. The Global Hunger Index, 2020 ranked India 94th out of 107 countries, calling the situation a ’serious hunger problem.’ The ranking placed India much behind our neighbours in the region - Bangladesh (75th), Pakistan (88th), Nepal (73rd) and Sri Lanka.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further intensified this insecurity. According to the ‘Hunger Watch’ survey conducted across 11 states last year, in the months of September and October 2020, 27 per cent of the respondents went to bed without eating.

Here are some disturbing facts and figures about hunger that brings out the stark hunger-food waste paradox that exists in India:

  • The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that around 190 million people in India are undernourished. Further, 69 per cent of deaths of children below the age of five in the country, are attributed to malnutrition, according to UNICEF.

  • As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16), 38.4 per cent of children in the age group of 0-5, suffer from stunting (low height for weight), 21 per cent suffer from wasting (low height for age), while 35.8 per cent are underweight.

  • The Lancet states that two-thirds of 1.04 million deaths in children under the age of five in India are due to malnutrition. India is home to 25.5 million of the 47 million under-five children globally – these figures are expected to increase with the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • According to the United Nations, 40 per cent of the food produced in India is wasted or lost in transit. The value of food wastage is around Rs 92,000 crores.

  • Around 10-20 per cent of food at Indian weddings and similar social events are wasted

  • Further, nearly 21 million metric tonnes of wheat lie rotting in India – this is the same as the gross annual production of Australia.

  • On the contrary, India accounts for 22 per cent of the global food insecurity burden, the highest among all the nations, in 2017-19.

  • As per data released by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, more than 1.550 tonnes of food grains were damaged at the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns during the lockdown period between April-May. This was also when the country witnessed large scale reverse migration, as daily labourers and migrants went back to their villages – many walking for days. Hunger deaths also rose during the pandemic as millions found themselves without any jobs or means of subsistence.

Tips to reduce food wastage at home:

The report notes that apart from making policy changes, an active change in the way consumers behave – the way we shop, cook and consume food and make wasting food socially unacceptable – would be required to achieve the target and ensure that nearly a billion people do not go to bed hungry every night.

While food loss and wastage at the production and transportation levels need to be tackled at the policy level, there are certain steps that we can take to ensure we reduce the amount of food we waste at home:

  • Plan your meals: Take an inventory of all the food items you have and make a list of what you will be preparing before you go shopping.

  • Be a smart shopper: Research shows that bulk buying, while more convenient, often leads to more wastage, because it encourages overbuying in order to avail reduced prices. What people do not realise is that the cost savings are often offset by the cost of the food we waste.

  • Freeze leftover food: If daily cooking is difficult, you can always cook in advance and batch freeze your food to ensure it lasts longer.

  • Check the use-by date: A golden rule to ensure you do not end up throwing away most of what you buy.

  • Store correctly: We often tend to throw away vegetables, fruits, dairy products and other perishables because we have not stored them properly. One way in which you can avoid food from getting spoilt is by separating fruits and vegetables that produce more ethylene gas (banana, tomatoes, apples, pears) from those that absorb the gas (broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage). Also, always store potatoes, onions and garlic at room temperature.

Food loss and wastage costs more than USD 940 billion dollars to the economy per year. Reducing this has multiple benefits – apart from ensuring the availability of food and tackling hunger, it can also minimise the destruction of nature through land conversion and biodiversity loss, reduce pressure on water resources and save money in the long run.

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