India is the second largest producer of vegetables and fruit but 25 per cent to 30 per cent of it is wasted due to inadequate logistical support, lack of refrigerated storage, supply chain bottlenecks, and poor transport. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) puts this figure at around 40 per cent.
Twenty-one million metric tonnes of wheat — almost equal to Australia’s production — rots each year due to improper storage. Every year, the government purchases millions of tonnes of grain from farmers for use in food subsidy programmes and to maintain an emergency buffer. The cruel truth is that most of it has to be left out in the open, vulnerable to rain and attacks by rodents, or stored in makeshift spaces, covered by tarpaulin sheets, creating high rates of spoilage.
One million tonnes of onions vanish on their way from farms to markets, as do 2.2 million tonnes of tomatoes. Tomatoes get squished if they are packed into jute sacks. Overall, five million eggs crack or go bad due to lack of cold storage. If there are no proper roads linking fields to markets, farmers cannot easily sell their surplus produce, which may then spoil before it can be eaten. Improving road and rail capacity enables farmers to reach buyers — and fertilisers and other agricultural inputs to reach farmers. Just three states — Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana — grow most of India’s grain, and the food has to be transported to far-flung areas.
A study undertaken by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (2013) of post-harvest loss estimated that around 67 million tonnes are wasted in India every year. That’s more than the national average of Britain, the entire food requirement of all of Bihar for a year. In terms of monetary value it is nearly two-thirds of the amount that the government needs to feed 600 million poor Indians with subsidised ration under the National Food Security programme.
A recent study conducted by the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata has uncovered that only 10 per cent of perishable produce get cold storage facility in India. These are mostly used for potatoes to meet India’s robust demand for chips. The study estimates that India needs storage facilities for another 370 million metric tonnes of perishable produce. India has developed some modern supply chains linked to food processing companies, such as Nestlé, Pepsi Unilever and Del Monte. But these handle only a fraction of the country’s perishable food.
According to the United Nations, India is estimated to use more than 230 cubic kilometre of fresh water annually — enough to provide drinking water to 100 million people a year — for producing food items that are ultimately wasted. Wasting a kilogramme of wheat and rice would mean wasting 1,500 and 3,500 litre of water respectively that is consumed in their production.
Besides this, nearly 300 million barrels of oil used in the process is also ultimately wasted.
The World Bank recently warned that 60 per cent of the country’s food subsidies do not reach the poor; they are pilfered by corrupt middlemen, stealing precious aid destined for the hungry and malnourished.