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Food: Affordability of waste

Millenium Post
By Professor  

Debates are rife surrounding the fate of food availability and quality. It seems that we are going to fall short of supply as demand is projected to soar with population growth, while land availability for food production is shrinking fast due to its aggressive expansion and conversion into urban hubs. By 2050, the global population is expected to touch 9 billion; this urges the need of a quantum leap in food production— by about 70 per cent—to meet the UN targets on hunger and nutrition. Can this be achieved? With varied agricultural innovations in irrigation and seed types (genetically modified varieties), in recent times, this might be a possibility.

But the threat of running short of reserves will still persist, as always. A major challenge in the food sector has not been production alone but our effort to make that food available to the masses, especially to the less privileged classes. And herein arises the question of poverty and food affordability, which owes much to the volatility prevalent in global food market prices.

For example, global surges in food prices in 2007-'08 and again in 2011, has shoved over 100 million people into poverty, adding 44 million more to the undernourished population. Globally, over 900 million people still cannot afford an adequate or nutritious diet. In the developing world, soaring food prices present a major threat to food security schemes, as people tend to spend over half to three-fourths of their income on food.

But what affects food affordability? A disparaging fact about agricultural commodity and output prices is the wastage of food that leads to aberrant market fluctuations (thus reduction in affordability), among several others. About a third of the global produce (1.3 billion tons) is lost or wasted annually. As the produce moves down the supply chain through harvest, storage, processing, transport, retailing and finally to the consumer, chances of waste/loss multiplies linearly, or even exponentially in some regions, based on the robustness of the supply chain infrastructure and the overall food sector governance. In a circular economy, food waste/loss at various points of the supply chain ultimately affects affordability at the retailer point.

Food Waste: Global Economic Divide

Regarding food waste, a curious fact has come to light in recent times, one which reasserts the global economic divide. For example, on a per-capita basis, more food is wasted in the industrialised world than in developing economies. Estimates show that the total per capita annual food loss in Europe and North-America may range between 280 to 300 kg/year, while that in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia, it stands at 120-170 kg/year.

In a way, the generation of waste in affluent nations may arise from higher food production – while per capita production in Europe and North-America is about 900 kg/year, it is less than half in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia. But does this really allow our richer brothers to 'throw away' food? Probably yes. In affluent nations, food is often 'discarded' at the consumer level even when considered suitable for consumption. Just to mention, each year about 40-50 per cent of wheat, the major cereal after rice, is wasted at the consumer level in medium and high-income countries.

UN reports suggest that presently, food waste at the consumer level range well up to 220 million tons in more industrialised nations; which is actually as high as the total net production in Sub-Saharan Africa (230 million ton)! Per capita food waste in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg/year at the consumer stage, while for sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia it is about 6-11 kg/year. What happens to this wasted/lost food at the consumer level? Unfortunately, not much is known about it. In low-income countries, on the other hand, waste/loss mostly occurs during early-middle stages of the supply chain, owing largely to inefficient cropping methods and/or the lack of sound management strategies.

The Food Footprint

A more despairing fact about food wastage is, it is not just about food at all. The footprints spread over several other vital resources — water, energy, land and infrastructure, besides human resources. Taking the example of water in the food value chain, production of a kilo of rice requires about 3,500 litres of water, a kilo of fresh poultry products may cost about 6000 litres, lamb about 10,000 litres while beef about 15,000 litres of water.

With each kilo of cereal or meat wasted (in storage or transport or crop loss), there is over thousand-fold waste of water. Even a cup of coffee may drink away about 140 litres of water, which, as per WHO recommendations, is equivalent to the daily household water need for the people. For meat, such waste can be more disastrous. In fact, speculations suggest the high likelihood of drought-like situations (man-made) due to the increasing dietary shift to high-protein options (animal products).

Similar equations can also be drawn up for energy—energy calls in a trail of commodities, waste of which undermines the entire economic framework. In the recent era of global warming, this gives off a red hooter: a huge slug of GHGs being added to our atmosphere every day, only to produce food wastes! Just to mention, agriculture ranks among the major GHG contributors—accounting for over 10 per cent of global GHG emissions—raising global warming potentials.

The Tunnel Ahead

A major challenge in the coming years will be to deconstruct the nexus between food, water and energy, to seek effective and contextualised solutions. And herein lay the fundamental challenge that India, alongside most of its Southeast Asian neighbours, face presently. We have to realise that to prevent/tackle food waste/loss issues between production and retailing, populist schemes will no longer help. We will need long-term 'corrective' strategies instead to tackle the crises at its source. Given the unique challenges of each facet in the food supply chain, it seems difficult.

We will need big-data generation, maintenance and open-sourced data dissemination on production details; strategic partnerships between sectors involved in the food supply chain to share methods and data models; improved post-harvest management and distribution systems; accurate identification of nodal points of the potential resource losses from production to retail. Above all, we require a participatory governance framework (capacity building and involvement of local agrarian communities in policy development) to design strategies to optimise agricultural resource utilisation (from seeds to water, agrochemicals, energy).

It will involve substantial redressing of the budget, making provisions for lucid resource mobilisation, and at the same time urging for transparency in fund disbursement, besides major transformations in regional/local political views (food-water-energy security schemes should not be annulled/curtailed with each new regime).

But first things first, we will need a sound food governance system, accounting for the institutional, technological, financial capacities (shortcomings), and above all, political priorities realised at regional and local levels. Direct and indirect interactions (positive/negative) between the levels may prompt policy responses to specific events related to production (such as crop failures owing to droughts and/or demonetisation) and projected outcomes. But for India, in particular, with the current state of food governance arrangements (leading to weird fluctuations in the agricultural market that evoke suicidal tendencies in farmers), the path ahead seems pretty tortuous.

(The author is faculty, environmental studies at OP Jindal Global University Sonipat, Haryana and co-Director to the Center for Environment, Sustainability and Human Development (CESH). The views expressed are strictly personal.)