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Food (waste) for thought

I must confess that when I came across Ankur C. Das’s share of a recent World Economic Forum Post quoting some truly disturbing numbers from the UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021, my primary suspect was the US.

“Just a chicken sandwich then,” I had mumbled, finally giving-in to my extremely sweet and motherly host Jeanine Schmierbach at Knoxville, Tennessee. The year was 2011 and it was my first visit to the country. I had just landed, and I am sure my nervousness showed. Jeanine was doing everything she could, to make things easy for me.

Brought up on apologies in the name of sumptuous portions at Indian restaurants, I still remember my shock-n-awe when my “just a chicken sandwich” arrived. I couldn’t believe this was what I had ordered in the hope of honouring my host but having something really light.

Not that it did not have two oversized triangles of the sandwich bursting with chicken and a generous serving of greens, but at first sight it looked like a dish of French fries. If you ever wondered what the expression “fully-loaded” meant, here was the definition. There was no way I was going to finish even half of my otherwise favourite comfort food. To top it, six years later during my second visit to the US, I experienced the first and only occasion in my life when I couldn’t even finish an ice-cream cone.

So, I knew exactly which country to blame for a major chunk of the 931 million tonnes of food waste reported in 2019. But digging slightly deeper into the Report, I was stunned to find that lower middle-income countries clocked 91 kgs/capita/year food waste as against 79 kgs in high-income countries. In fact, a 2014 Indian study conducted in Dehradun and cited in the Report puts the figure for India at 90 kgs for the high-income group; enough to prick my US bias.

Irrespective of the fact that the definition of food in the Report includes inedible parts, and that the data is heavily extrapolated, another number that I found even more alarming is that 61% of the waste is generated by households, not restaurants and other businesses.

My second confession in this post is I am invariably elated when I receive a mail from an Aditya saying, “I am happy to inform you that I have recently launched a new start-up, FIX Coffee” or a call from a Nishant announcing his plans of “soon getting into branded tea”. When Manas, my student from Symbiosis recently announced a funding round by 100x.vc for his Kerala Banana Chips venture, I must say I was over the moon. This is just the tip of the iceberg and there would be many more of them.

But looking at the UNEP Report, I wish one of these young foodpreneurs comes up, not with an idea of producing more food, but with the thought of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal to halve food waste by 2030. Elena Belavina of Cornell University claims in a recent ToI Article, “The world now produces more than enough food to feed most of its people, but it is not distributed equitably.” We still have almost a decade to go till 2030, and I am going to keep my fingers firmly crossed.

Emily Broad Leib of Harvard University assures in the same ToI issue, “For those working to stop food waste, this is a time of hope.” And as someone who prides himself on leaving the plate squeaky clean after every single meal, I will always remain hopeful.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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