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India’s real food problem isn’t hunger but loss and wastage

Food losses can't be brought to zero; even developed nations like Ukraine experience it. But this analysis highlights a low-hanging problem and a solution to it.

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On 14 October, the Global Hunger Index 2022 was released. Out of 121 countries, India ranks 107, and the level of hunger and undernutrition in the country is now at “serious” levels. India’s rank on this index has been worsening since 2020 — 94 in 2020 and 101 in 2021. In fact, as of now, at 19.3 per cent, it has the highest rate of child wasting, or the proportion of children under 5 years with lower weight for their height, in the world. About 16.3 per cent of Indians are undernourished, and about one in every three children is stunted, meaning the proportion of children under 5 years with lower height for age.

This is despite India being the largest producer of milk, pulses, bananas, and second-largest producer of wheat, rice, and vegetables in the world. It is also among the top producers of livestock products such as fish and poultry.

So, how is it that we are the largest producer of some critical staples in the world, yet our population is nutrition- and food-deprived? One of the plausible reasons contributing to this can well be India’s high level of food wastages and losses. We explain it below.

Extent of food loss in India

Before food reaches the plate, it travels from the farmer to wholesalers, retailers, and sometimes processors. At every stage, some proportion of crop production is lost.

Several studies have assessed these losses. Three among them are noteworthy. One, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries’ ICAR-CIPHET (Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology) 2015 report studying 45 crops. Two, the Union government’s Small Farmers’ Agri-business Consortium’s (SFAC) 2015 study of horticulture crops in north-eastern regions. And three, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) SOFI (State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019) and SOFA (State of Food and Agriculture 2019) reports.

Food losses differ from food wastage. Crops lost up to the post-harvest level until it reaches the retailer are referred to as losses. Food wastage is the loss of food at the consumer’s end.

As per the ICAR-CIPHET 2015 report, anywhere between 1 per cent (in the case of milk) to 16 per cent (guava, for instance) of the agricultural produce is lost by the time it reaches the retailer. As per SFAC (2015), these losses range anywhere from 9 per cent (in potato) to 32 per cent (in peas). The FAO estimates are on the higher side. They range between 6.3 per cent (cottonseed) and 30.2 per cent (marine fish).

There are methodological and conceptual differences between the three reports, making them somewhat incomparable. Nevertheless, this data can be used to understand some interesting aspects about food losses in India.


Also read: World is worried about India banning rice exports, but no threat to food security yet


Glut increases losses and better prices reduce them

It is estimated that in times of glut (which happens nearly every alternate year for many horticulture crops like potato, tomato, and onion) when there is a bumper crop and the prices fall, 20 to 30 per cent of the produce gets wasted due to absence of assured markets (Dalwai 2017 quoting the SFAC study).  Farmers throw their crops in disgust and distress. Sometimes, they are unable to even recover the cost of logistics and are forced to throw the crop. Alternatively, when food prices rise, wastages reduce (FAO 2019). Dearer food also makes consumers think twice before buying and throwing it.

More losses at handling, storage, transportation

According to ICAR-CIPHET 2015, most crop losses happen at the farmer level. But according to the SFAC and FAO studies, most losses, particularly in the case of fruits and vegetables, happen at the logistical and storage levels (FAO SOFA 2019 and Dalwai 2017). A lack of scientific storages at the farmer, mandi, and retailer levels, far-off mandis, and inefficient storage techniques — all lead to such losses in the value chain.

Food losses and land cost

As part of ongoing research on food losses, we undertook alternate ways to understand the gravity of the issue of food losses. One such way is finding its land equivalence cost (LEC). We define this as the amount of land that would have been used to produce the food that got wasted/lost.

We used the data on crop losses (ICAR-CIPHET) and the annual production of the crop. We combined them to get an estimate of the quantity of crop that was lost in that year. Let us take an example of wheat. As per the CIPHET, about 4.9 per cent of wheat gets lost in the value chain. As per the Directorate of Economics and Statistics (DES), about 93 million metric tonnes (MMTs) of wheat was produced in India in 2015-16. This implies that in that year, about 4.55 MMTs of wheat got lost in the system up until it reached the retailer. The average yield of wheat in India in that year was about 3 tonnes/hectare. This implies that to produce 4.55 MMTs of wheat, India would have used about 1.5 million hectares of its agricultural land.

Just like wheat, we estimated the LEC for 27 other crops (the ICAR report gives loss estimates for 45 crops) for 2015-16.

We found that approximately 60.2 MMTs of those 27 crops got lost annually and their LEC was 10.1 million hectares. This implies that the produce of about 10 million hectares of India’s agricultural land (Indian gross cropped area is about 197 million hectares) goes to waste in a year. This is higher than the gross cropped area (GCA) of the entire state of Punjab at 7.9 million hectares (2018-19) or Andhra Pradesh (7.3 million hectares) or even Bihar (7.4 million hectares).

The ICAR-CIPHET 2015 results are rather old as the data for this study was collected in 2013-14. Recently, a study has been awarded to NABCONS (NABARD Consultancy Services) to evaluate food losses. We await the publication of the NABCONS’ study, which will provide a more recent assessment of losses. Due to various steps taken by the Narendra Modi government in the last few years, it is expected that the losses may now be lower than the ones we used for our analysis. Nevertheless, this analysis helps highlight a low-hanging problem and a solution to India’s problem of hunger and malnutrition.


Also read: Cost of a veg Indian thali has jumped 42% since 2015. That too without curd, tea, fruits


What next?

Money saved is money earned. Food saved is food produced.

It is not that these losses can be entirely eliminated and brought to zero. Even developed countries have such losses. Available data suggests that compared to India’s loss of 4.7 per cent and 5.5 per cent in maize and rice respectively (ICAR-CIPHET 2015), counterparts like Ukraine report losses of 2.73 per cent and 1.7 per cent in 2016 (FAO). For wheat, Canada reported a loss of 0.06 per cent in 2013, compared to India’s 4.9 per cent in 2015 (FAO). For sure, there is scope for reducing these losses.

By providing farmers a mechanism to access real-time prices, encouraging avenues like processing to absorb ‘excess’ production during glut, and empowering the farmers and markets with scientific storages like silos and logistical support, inter alia, can go a long way in reducing such losses. The private sector is coming up with innovations along these value chains. GreenPod Labs is innovating on packaging and storing of produce to augment their shelf life, then there are others like Dehaat that, among other services, provides an online marketplace to farmers and buyers that reduces the number of hands the food trades in.

Innovations and investments, both public and private, are key to addressing the food loss and waste challenges.

Expensive food in 2022 has triggered a global food crisis pushing millions into the trap of hunger, deprivation, and malnutrition. As per the World Bank, about 222 million people in 53 countries and territories will be experiencing acute food insecurity this year. While the emphasis on producing more food is quite justified, we believe that preventing food losses as well as food wastages along the value chain should be given a high priority too.

Saini is Promoter-Director and Khatri is Consultant at Arcus Policy Research. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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