Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Time is Ripe for a Food Waste Revolution

 This article was originally published in a slightly abridged version in the op-ed page of The Indian Express, dated 7th April 2021 under the title 'Portion Control'. Click here for the online version of the same piece.

Recently, on a food research trip to the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, I was privy to a rather extraordinary traditional ritual. The entire mountain village of Satta in Tons Valley came together on a cold winter morning to slaughter, cook and honour a goat they had partaken in raising for close to a year. Every part of the animal from head to tail—including its skin, internal organs and even the blood — was turned into something useful or delicious. Nothing was wasted. The community’s frugality is in stark contrast to how meat is consumed in most parts of urban India today, where the prime cuts usually prized.

The same prudence can be observed even when you hark back to the way our parents and grandparents approached food and cooking in the past. I clearly remember my grandmother’s fluffy bread upma made from upcycling leftover loaves the next day, or relishing her chakkakuru ularthiyathu, a deliciously, nutty Kerala-style stir fry made with the seeds of ripe jackfruit which would otherwise have been thrown away.

The problem of food waste is a relatively modern one. India is an ancient civilisation and we, as a society, have been prudent about our source of sustenance for millennia. Yet somewhere along the way, we lost sight of this ‘waste not, want not’ mentality.

Nearly 40% of the food produced in India is wasted every year due to fragmented food systems and inefficient supply chains — a figure estimated by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. This is the loss that occurs even before the food reaches the consumer.

Simultaneously, there is a significant amount of food waste generated in our homes. Globally, 61% of total food waste is attributed to households, according to the Food Waste Index Report 2021 published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The same report estimates that a staggering 50 kilograms of food is thrown away per person every year in Indian homes.

This excess food waste conventionally ends up in landfill, creating potent greenhouse gases which have dire implications on the climate. Meanwhile the ‘woke’ among us continue to be greenwashed into amassing more ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ products than we really need.

This blatant irony has been plaguing our food system for decades, and worsening with time. It was only until the crippling COVID-19 pandemic came along in 2020 that many of us began taking note. Affluent Indians were suddenly inconvenienced by things otherwise taken for granted, like procuring groceries or worrying about how long their supplies would last. We came to realise that the food we eat goes far beyond the few bites it takes for us to finish it. We started becoming more conscious of our food choices.

The pandemic not only exposed the problems pivoting on food waste but also compounded them. In the wake of the lockdown imposed in March last year, surplus stocks of grain hoarded by the government — pegged at 65 lakh tonnes in the first four months of 2020 — continued to rot in godowns across India. Access to food became extremely scarce for the poor, especially the daily-wage labourers. Although essential commodities were exempt from movement restrictions, farmers across the country struggled to access markets, resulting in tonnes of food waste. Meanwhile, instinctive hoarding by the middle class disrupted the value chain, further aggravating the conundrum.

So how can we, as individuals, bring about change? The astonishing statistics of food waste attributed to households and their irresponsible consumption patterns means that change needs to begin in our own homes.  Calculated purchasing when buying groceries, minimising single-use packaging wherever possible, ordering consciously from restaurants, and reconsidering extravagant buffet spreads at weddings can go a long way. At the community level, one can identify and get involved with organisations such as Coimbatore-based No Food Waste which aims to redistribute excess food — especially from weddings and events — to feed the needy and hungry.

A strong sense of judiciousness in how we consume our food is the next logical step. We must attempt to change our ‘food abundance’ mindset to a ‘food scarcity’ one, slowly working our way towards a zero-waste end goal. And for the food that is left behind? Feed someone else or, at the very least, compost it so it doesn’t end up in landfill.

Be open to incorporating nose-to-tail cooking when it comes to meat and seafood (fish head makes a fantastic curry so don’t throw it away!). Moreover, the roots, shoots, leaves and stalks of most vegetables are perfectly edible. Regional Indian recipes like surnoli, a Mangalorean dosa made with watermelon rind, or gobhi danthal sabzi made with cauliflower stalks and leaves in Punjab, are born out of the ideas of frugality and respect for our food. The Bengalis adopt a root-to-shoot philosophy throughout their cuisine — thor ghonto  is a curry comprising tender banana stems, while ucche pata bora  are fritters made with bitter gourd leaves.

You can start with influencing simple decisions about food consumption in your own home, and then get people in your immediate community to join through the power and reach of social media. Acquainting oneself with and supporting initiatives proactively working towards reducing food waste, and encouraging others to do the same, is yet another way to disseminate awareness.

Adrish, India’s first chain of zero-waste concept stores opened in 2018 and has a presence in Mumbai, Pune and Delhi, with more cities on the horizon. Focused on getting people to shift from harmful, artificial consumption to an eco-friendly, zero-waste lifestyle, they believe this is achievable by providing sustainable and biodegradable alternatives — ingredients and products sold in reusable packaging while supporting marginal farmers and artists. Incidentally, the word ‘adrish’ translates to ‘mirror’. And a long, hard look at ourselves and the way we consume is perhaps what we need right now to begin making even a small difference.