A Clarion Call for Responsible Consumption

As India continues to remain largely under lockdown owing to Covid-19, there seems to be a general consensus that we are very likely staring at severe economic challenges in the coming months. The pandemic has only exacerbated the economic woes that have persisted for the last several months.

The Reserve Bank of India’s monetary policy report published in April 2020 cited a general decline in private consumption expenditure in the second half of 2019-20.[1] The report also cautioned that aggregate demand, including private consumption, is at serious risk from the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to be impacted adversely by likely recession in the global economy, exacerbated by disruptions in global supply chains and restrictions such as lockdowns imposed in many economies.

The concern about the migrant labour crisis from many quarters would seem fair if viewed in conjunction with the fact that food and beverages constitute roughly 45 percent of the private consumption basket in India[2] – the largest component of the consumption basket. With lost incomes, hunger might be the biggest threat to lives. The pandemic only adds to the already grim outlook.

Under these circumstances, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) become much more significant now than at any time since they were first adopted in 2015. While some goals might seem more important than others, it is clear that we will need to redouble our focus and efforts towards the SDGs.

People have become cautious with regard to what they spend on. Experts believe that the pandemic will change the way we shop and consume stuff. We also need to adopt more responsible consumption and production practices (SDG -12), going forward. Keeping in mind food security concerns, one of the most important targets under SDG 12 from an Indian perspective is target 12.3.

Target 12.3 calls for halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses by 2030.[3]

 

Food loss and waste

In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that around one-third of the world’s food was lost or wasted every year. Since then, food waste and loss have become a major concern world over. To address this growing concern, FAO is developing two separate indices – The food Loss Index (FLI) and the Food Waste Index (FWI).[4]

The FLI provides new loss estimates from post-harvest up to, but not including, the retail stage.

The FWI provides global estimates on the food wasted at the retail and consumption levels.

 

Status in India: Food Produced ≠ Food on the Plate

While India had witnessed impressive economic growth in recent years, the country still struggles with widespread hunger and poverty. Out of an estimated over 820 million hungry people worldwide[5], roughly one-fourth[6] of them are from India. India ranked 102 out of 117 qualifying countries in the 2019 Global Hunger Index. With a score of 30.3, the country suffers from a level of hunger that is characterized as “serious.”[7]

Given that the total foodgrains production in India was estimated to clock a record over 290 million tons in 2019-20[8] and that the country is a net exporter of agricultural products, it is paradoxical that India is home to such a large pool of hungry people.

For all the record food production figures, why is the country struggling to feed its own?

Among others, one of the main reasons for the co-existence of abundant food supply and undernourishment is the loss and wastage of food that takes place throughout the supply chain. Food worth $8.3 billion or nearly 40% of the total value of annual production is wasted[9] before it reaches a person’s plate mainly due to poor practices and inadequate infrastructure.

 

What can we do about it: put ears to the ground?

Food loss and waste is a problem that needs immediate attention from all stakeholders across the food value chain, including farmers, consumers, businesses, governments, and multilateral organizations.

Businesses should seize opportunities to not only streamline their own operations to reduce food losses and to save money but also innovate to reduce food loss and waste across the food value chain. India’s food security challenges could be traced to supply chain bottlenecks, transport & storage issues, and infrastructure challenges, which are well known.

However, the solutions to these challenges need to be innovative. This is a great opportunity for startups to solve real problems we face as a nation across the food value chain.

Take, for instance, Jodhpur-based Krimanshi Technologies that is tackling the problem of food waste by upcycling food waste into low-cost nutritious cattle feed and fodder.[10]

The Hyderabad-based startup, Our Food provides access to low-cost processing equipment near their farms. The farmers are able to process, store, and sell their value-added produce to businesses such as restaurants and retail stores, including online grocers, thereby getting the right price for their produce.

We need to scale what few startups are already doing and find other innovative ways to tackle the problem of food waste and to help put food on the plates of the hungry. It would also help to take a broader view of the problem and a more systemic approach.

 

Interconnectedness of SDGs

With an estimated world population of approximately 10 billion by 2050, one of the key challenges will be to ensure food supply in a resource-constrained world. In the coming years, the food supply will likely be constrained by the declining availability of arable land and impending freshwater scarcity, which we are already witnessing.

Thus, reducing food loss and waste is a potent tool in reducing production costs, improving food security, and achieving environmental sustainability by easing the pressure on natural resources.

As per FAO, reducing food loss and waste could have wider implications for other SDGs related to the food system, such as SDG 2, which deals with ending hunger and achieving food security and improved nutrition.

The below image[11] summarizes the potential linkages between reducing food loss and waste and the various SDGs, irrespective of their likely magnitude and importance. The dotted boxes refer to the expected impacts on food security, nutrition, natural resources, and the environment.

It is interesting to note that progress on other SDGs could likely have beneficial impacts in terms of reducing food loss and waste. These SDGs include SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 9 (infrastructure, industry, and innovation), and SDG 17 (partnerships).

 

food loss and waste sdgs

Food loss and waste and the SDGs

 

As the once in a lifetime event unfolds and most of us adjust to a new normal, there will be significant challenges. However, these are also times of great opportunities waiting to be uncovered, especially for startups and young companies to innovate and lead the change. Systems thinking mindset coupled with a big, audacious vision is the need of the times.

Meanwhile, as consumers, we should waste less food by shopping wisely, buying produce irrespective of shape, size, and appearance, knowing when food goes bad, cooking only the amount of food needed, and not wasting leftovers. Let’s become responsible, mindful consumers.

[1] Reserve Bank of India Monetary Policy Report, April 2020
[2] India be overestimating inflation and making skewed policy at the cost of higher growth, The Economic Times, accessed on 26.05.2020
[3] Sustainable Development Goals knowledge platform website accessed on 25.05.2020
[4] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website accessed on 25.05.2020
[5] Ibid.
[6] Food security portal website accessed on 25.05.2020
[7] Global Hunger Index, website accessed on 25.05.2020
[8] India’s 2019-20 foodgrain production to hit a record high of 291.95 million tonnes, The Economic Times, accessed on 20.05.2020
[9] India Must Tackle Food Waste, World Economic Forum website, accessed on 25.05.2020
[10] For Krimanshi Technologies, 1.3 billion tonnes of global food waste offers great business opportunity, The Economic Times, accessed on 25.05.2020
[11] The State of Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2019