Food Waste India

Everything about India’s Food Waste Problem

By Sanjoli Arora

Food wastage is a significant issue that plagues societies around the world, and India is no exception. The history of global food waste dates back to the emergence of modern agricultural and industrial practices.

During the post-World War II era- the industrialisation of agriculture, advancements in transportation, and the rise of global food trade led to increased food production. This abundance of food, combined with changing consumer behaviours, contributed to the emergence of food waste as a pressing issue.

Today, efforts to tackle food waste span from farm to fork. Governments, businesses, and individuals are implementing various measures and policy interventions to address this critical issue.

Tackling the food waste problem globally is of paramount importance due to its far-reaching implications. So let us dig deeper into the impact of food wastage in India, shedding light on the scale of the problem and its consequences.

How Big is the Food Waste Problem in India?

Despite being home to a significant portion of the world’s population facing hunger and malnutrition, India also grapples with a substantial amount of food waste.

According to a 2022 report by the MCAFPD, an Indian household wastes approximately 50 kgs of food per person annually.

This staggering figure highlights the urgent need to minimize wastage at various levels of the food supply chain. Food waste in India refers to the discarding of edible food that is still suitable for consumption. It is essential to distinguish between food waste and food loss. 

Food loss occurs during production, processing, or storage. Whereas food waste happens when food is discarded at the retail, consumer, or food service stages.

Food loss and waste contribute to 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It eventually leads to climate change and extreme weather events. Reduced food loss and waste (FLW) can thus help both impoverished people’s food security and climate change mitigation efforts.

Facts About Food Waste in India

According to the UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021, India’s contribution to wasted food is 68.8 million kgs per year, accounting for 7% of the global total.  

Out of all this waste, 70% of it comes from Indian households while food services contribute 26% & retail outlets 13%. This means that households in India produce far more food waste than the private sector.

The reason for this could be that India still cooks and eats meals made at home. Additionally, changing lifestyles, urbanization, and the increasing popularity of eating out have contributed to a rise in food waste from food services and retail outlets.

Why is Food Waste a Concern in India?

India has a complex history of poverty and hunger, and hence the issue of food waste takes on a significant meaning. For decades, India has been grappling with the challenge of ensuring food security for its vast population. Despite progress in recent years, a substantial number of people still face hunger and malnutrition. 

  • According to the Global Hunger Index 2022, India ranks 107th out of 121 countries, indicating a serious level of hunger and food insecurity. 
  • As of 2021, an estimated 194.4 million people or 14.37% of the Indian population are undernourished and experiencing insufficient calorie intake along with nutrient deficiencies.
  • The poverty rate in India stood at 10% in 2019 as per World Bank records. It indicates that a significant proportion of the population still living below the poverty line.

It is against this backdrop that the rising levels of food waste in the country become deeply concerning.

Food Waste & Socio-Economic Challenges

Food waste and loss not only squander precious resources but also pose economic and social challenges for a developing nation like India. When food is wasted, the resources that went into its production, including water, energy, labour, and agricultural land, are also wasted. It is estimated that the value of food wastage in India is around ₹92,000 crores per annum.

Given that India is still striving to optimize its resource utilization, reducing food waste could have significant economic benefits. The saved resources could be redirected towards other productive sectors, leading to enhanced economic growth, job creation, and improved living standards for the population.

Moreover, minimizing food waste has the potential to address food insecurity within the country. By ensuring that the food produced reaches those in need, India can make substantial progress in eradicating hunger and malnutrition.

Food Waste & Impact on the Environment

Beyond the economic and social aspects, food waste also exacts a toll on natural resources and contributes to climate change. The environmental impact of food waste cannot be overlooked, considering the substantial greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production, transportation, and disposal. 

When food is wasted, the resources expended in its production, such as land, water, and energy, go in vain. Additionally, the decomposition of wasted food in landfills releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

To illustrate the connection between food wastage, natural resources, and climate change, let’s consider the scenario of a farmer named Ravi. 

Ravi works tirelessly to cultivate his land, utilizing water resources and energy to grow crops. However, due to inadequate storage facilities and inefficient supply chain management, a significant portion of Ravi’s harvest goes to waste before reaching consumers. 

The wasted produce not only squanders the water, energy, and land resources used in its cultivation but also contributes to methane emissions as it decomposes in landfills. 

This example highlights how food wastage impacts both natural resources and farmers’ livelihoods, creating a vicious cycle that perpetuates economic and environmental challenges.

Food Waste & SDGs

Recognizing the urgent need to address these interrelated issues, food security and minimizing food waste have become important Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined by the United Nations. India, being a signatory to the SDGs, has committed itself to achieving these global targets of Zero Hunger (SDG 2) along with Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12).

By prioritizing measures to reduce food waste, improve supply chain efficiency, enhance storage infrastructure, and educate consumers about responsible consumption, India can take significant strides towards ensuring food security, minimizing waste, and creating a more sustainable and resilient future for its people.

Food Waste is a Global Problem

India is not alone in grappling with the food waste problem. Several other countries face similar challenges, with some even surpassing India’s food waste rates.

Every year, over 17% of food waste is produced worldwide in retail, food service, and by families, totalling nearly a billion tonnes. Between the harvest and retail stages, over 14% of all food produced globally is lost.

The UNEP Report also highlights that India contributes 7% of total global food waste. This was far less than in other developed countries. However, every fourth hungry person on the planet is Indian.

Global total household food waste chart

Indian households are the second most waste-producing units globally. However, the per capita waste produced by Indian households is very low. 

Excessive food waste can be attributed to various factors, including inadequate infrastructure, poor supply chain management, consumer behaviour, and the challenges farmers and food producers face. Understanding these factors is crucial for developing targeted strategies that address the root causes of food waste.

Causes of Food Waste in India

In India, certain food items are more prone to wastage due to various reasons, such as perishability, improper storage, and cultural practices. Rice, vegetables, and fruits are among the most commonly wasted food items in India.

Overproduction, inadequate storage facilities, poor transportation infrastructure, and market preferences for specific varieties or appearances are some of the top reasons food goes to waste in India.

Food waste affects everyone in the country in different ways. For farmers, food waste can result in financial losses and hinder their economic stability. Consumers may face increased food costs and missed opportunities to contribute to food security initiatives. Businesses may experience reduced profitability and negative environmental impacts.

While everyone faces challenges due to food waste, the impact does not affect everyone equally. Vulnerable populations often lack access to sufficient food causing malnutrition, poverty, and rampant hunger. Addressing the problem of food waste can contribute to reducing disparities and ensuring equitable access to nutrition.

So why is food getting wasted in India?

Top Reasons for Food Loss & Waste in India

Lack of proper storage and transportation infrastructure

Inadequate storage and transportation infrastructure contribute to post-harvest losses and food waste. According to a government-backed study, India lost 5-13% of its fruits and vegetables and 3-7% of other commodities such as oil seeds and spices between harvesting and consumption in 2022. If we had to put a price tag on it, it would be more than ₹1,52,000 crores!

The lack of cold storage facilities, proper packaging, and transportation systems leads to spoilage and deterioration of food quality.

Inefficient supply chain management

Inefficiencies in the supply chain, including poor inventory management, inadequate distribution networks, and lack of coordination among stakeholders, resulting in food waste at various stages of the food system.

According to the ICAR-CIPHET 2015 research, ranging from 1% (in the case of milk) to 16% (guava) of agricultural produce is lost by the time it reaches the merchant. According to SFAC (2015), these losses range from 9% (in potatoes) to 32% (in peas). 

Consumer behaviour and food purchasing habits

People waste a lot of food. From overbuying to throwing away leftovers, every one of us contributes in some way to the larger issue. Innocent shopping habits and corporate practices intensify the problem. 

  1. The Buy One, Get One Free scheme can encourage consumers to bring home more food than they can consume. This is especially true for perishable items.
  2. Food expiration dates refer to the quality of the produce & not consumption safety. But since this is not common knowledge, many households throw away food items because it is past the expiration date.
  3. Leftovers are one of the most wasted types of food. When customers realise they can take extra food home, they may overorder. Too frequently, food sits in the back of the fridge and eventually degrades. It’s much easier for people to throw out food and ignore their responsibility.
  4. Preference for aesthetically appealing produce contributes to avoidable wastage.
  5. Many households may not be aware of the impact of food waste or lack knowledge about proper food management techniques. It includes storage, meal planning, and utilizing leftovers effectively.
  6. The cultural emphasis on providing an abundance of food during gatherings or festivals can also contribute to food waste.

Tackling the Indian Food Waste Problem

To effectively address the issue of food waste in India, requires the collective efforts of various stakeholders involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of food. 

Let’s explore the role and potential actions of each stakeholder in curbing food waste in India.

Government Initiatives and Role to Reduce Food Waste

The Indian government plays a crucial role in reducing food waste at various stages of the supply chain. Recognizing the importance of addressing this issue, several initiatives have been introduced.

  1. The Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sampada Yojana focuses on reducing food loss during harvest, transportation, and distribution phases by investing in infrastructure and creating efficient supply chains. 
  2. The National Mission on Food Processing aims to minimize post-harvest losses through the establishment of cold storage facilities, value addition, and market linkages.

The Indian government has also collaborated with international organizations such as the UN and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to address food waste and loss. These collaborations have resulted in knowledge sharing, technical assistance, and the implementation of best practices to reduce food waste and enhance food security.

Learning from Global Examples

India can draw valuable insights and inspiration from successful initiatives implemented in other countries. 

For instance, Denmark has made significant progress in reducing food waste through the Stop Wasting Food movement. By raising awareness, implementing regulations, and engaging various stakeholders, Denmark has successfully reduced household food waste by 25% in just five years. 

Similarly, South Korea’s Pay-As-You-Throw program charges households based on the amount of waste they generate, leading to a remarkable 30% reduction in food waste.

These examples highlight the importance of government intervention, awareness campaigns, and innovative approaches to addressing food waste.

Reducing Food Waste in Production and Distribution

Stakeholders involved in the production and distribution of food can contribute significantly to waste reduction. 

Farmers can adopt advanced agricultural practices, including proper storage techniques, efficient irrigation methods, and integrated pest management, to minimize post-harvest losses. 

Distributors and businesses can focus on improved inventory management, enhanced logistics, and collaboration with food banks and charitable organizations to redirect surplus food to those in need. 

By optimizing processes and investing in technology, stakeholders can reduce food waste while maximizing resource utilization and profitability.

Empowering Consumers and Households to Reduce Food Waste

Consumers, households, and individuals have a vital role to play in reducing food waste. Simple actions incorporated into daily routines can make a significant difference. 

These include planning meals in advance, making shopping lists, purchasing only what is needed, and properly storing and utilizing leftovers. Portion control, mindful consumption, and sharing excess food with neighbours or local charities can also contribute to waste reduction.

Additionally, composting organic waste at home can turn it into valuable fertilizer, closing the loop and minimizing environmental impact.

Role of NGOs and News Publications in Raising Awareness

NGOs and news publications have a critical role in raising awareness about food waste and instigating action. 

NGOs such as Feeding India and Robin Hood Army work tirelessly to rescue surplus food and distribute it among the needy. They collaborate with restaurants, businesses, and individuals to prevent edible food from going to waste. 

News publications and media platforms regularly highlight the issue of food waste, sharing success stories, awareness campaigns, and practical tips to inspire behavioural change. Through their efforts, NGOs and news publications create a sense of urgency and mobilize collective action among all stakeholders.

In conclusion, food wastage in India poses significant challenges and consequences, affecting the environment, natural resources, food security, and economic stability. Understanding the causes and impact of food waste is the first step toward developing effective solutions. By addressing all the challenges listed above, India can make strides in reducing food waste.

Sanjoli is currently working as a Content Strategist and has a Master’s degree in Fashion Journalism. She has contributed to publications like MensXPMindless Mag and Sustain: The Mag in the past. Conscious Charcha is her way of learning more about sustainability and spreading the word about a sustainable lifestyle.


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