4 min read.Updated: 19 Dec 2021, 09:02 PM ISTMonika Agarwal
Let’s measure and mitigate this food sector problem as part of the country’s fight against climate change
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At the CoP-26 summit that concluded last month, world leaders made yet another effort to reassess and renew their commitments to the global fight against climate change. However, yet again, reducing food loss and waste did not get the attention it deserves. This is one of the missed opportunities that need urgent attention in our response to the looming climate crisis.
The way we produce, store, transport, process, package, distribute and consume food gives rise to pollution that accounts for a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as estimated. During the same stages, a substantial amount of food is lost or wasted. This lost or wasted food—which has already used up scarce and valuable resources such as land, water, energy, fertilizers, labour and capital, and has been a source of emissions—generates additional emissions if it ends up in a landfill (which is a common occurrence in India).
The recently-released United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on the phenomenon indisputably captures the human influence on global warming, which is found to be contributing to increased agricultural droughts that may, in turn, affect food production all over the world. This is a perfect opportunity for most countries, including India, to minimize food loss and waste, which can reduce emissions while enabling resilient food systems. The issue is considered important but needs to be recognized as a priority on the research and action agenda of institutions.
Cost of food production and waste: The agricultural sector in India contributed around 14% of the country’s emissions in 2016, primarily from livestock rearing, rice cultivation and the application of fertilizers. The overall contribution of emissions by the food sector would increase manifold if we were to include estimates drawn from the use of energy during storage, packaging, processing and distribution, reliable figures for which remain unavailable, unfortunately.
Moreover, the agriculture sector is the largest user of available freshwater, which is already a scarce resource in our country. Our food production systems are already under pressure to provide quality food in sufficient quantities for our growing population, and are inextricably linked to soil health and water bodies for maintaining biodiversity and ensuring the health of our people. Nearly 30% of the world’s agricultural land is currently being used to produce food that is not going to reach our plates. Thus, the environmental costs of growing food are so immense that nothing justifies any food loss and waste.
Need to measure food loss and waste: Globally, it is estimated that one-third of food never gets consumed, which accounts for 8-10% of total GHG emissions. While around 14% of the food is lost between harvest and retail points of sale (also known as post-harvest losses), 17 % is wasted at the level of households, retail outlets, restaurants and other food services worldwide. India needs an understanding of the exact extent of food losses and waste, and its social, economic and environmental impact.
While the available studies on post-harvest losses in the country are not comparable, there is no emphasis on measuring food waste at the consumption level. Estimates on post-harvest losses in India vary from 18% to 25% across the entire supply chain, though they are estimated to be much higher, at up to 45%, in the case of fruits and vegetables.
The main challenge lies in identifying ‘critical loss points’ (stages that have the most loss/waste) in a food supply chain and also geographical hotspots for loss/waste in India.
The absence of relevant data means we cannot count on evidence-based, coordinated policy actions to mitigate the problem. This underpins the urgency of systematic data on food losses and waste, as highlighted in a recent WRI India study titled Food Loss and Waste in India: The Knowns and The Unknowns. The lack of meticulous estimates on the true scale of the problem makes it hard to raise the visibility of an issue in need of comprehensive action plans for loss-and-waste reduction.
To help solve the problem, we must adopt harmonized yardsticks or protocols, which once available for dissemination would aid efforts to increase public awareness of food losses and waste at all levels. Such information would be of value to the government, food businesses, research establishments, academia and civil society. Once we have the requisite data, we can set targets for reduction and take specific actions focused on critical loss points and geographical hotspots.
Problem recognition as a priority: For a country like India, which produces and consumes quantities of food that are among the world’s largest, any amount of loss or waste is not just an ethical issue, but also a cue for practical action—it offers us a chance to build sustainable food systems for the future.
India’s importance as a global actor in reducing GHG emissions cannot be denied and the dimensions on which we act against air pollution should be widened. The food losses we must address go well beyond the cause of nutrition. Indeed, this is about the overall health of our people and the natural ecosystem, from plants, animals, soil and water to various forms of biodiversity. All of these are interlinked, as laid out succinctly at this year’s UN Food Systems Summit.
Each one of us has a role in the global fight against climate change. For a start, we can reduce the quantity of food that gets binned in our very own homes.
Monika Agarwal is senior manager, Sustainable Landscapes and Restoration program, WRI India.