World Environment Day slogan: Think. Eat. Save. (Blame the government)

It's easy to blame the government for the colossal amounts of food that are wasted in India on the journey from the farm to our kitchen. But let's not forget to look inside our own refrigerators as well.

Sandip Roy June 06, 2013 09:28:59 IST
World Environment Day slogan: Think. Eat. Save. (Blame the government)

Think. Eat. Save.

That’s the pithy slogan of this year’s World Environment Day. Think. Eat. Save. That sounds a lot more doable than combating climate change and melting polar ice caps – a cheery three-step guide to a better planet. Even better for the average Indian consumer, it’s a slogan that allows us to point our fingers firmly at the government.

As ThinkEatSave.org points out about one-third of food production worldwide, about 1.3 billion tonnes, gets lost or wasted along the way. A 2009 UNEP study claims India loses nearly 23 million tonnes of food cereals, 12 million tonnes of fruits, and 21 million tonnes of vegetables every year. Most of it lost due to improper storage and distribution.

These numbers allow us to shake our heads and wag our fingers at the thieving, slothful, inefficient government. The Institution of Mechanical Researchers global food wastage report says clearly that at least 40 percent of all fruit and vegetables are lost in India between the grower and consumer due to lack of refrigerated transport, poor roads, inclement weather and corruption. All of that spells Big. Bad. Government. Blaming the government comes with a self-righteous feel-good factor unlike the twinges of guilt that accompany the washing machine we are eyeing or that bigger car.

Reduce your footprint

But the Think Eat Save slogan also comes with a smaller easily-ignored subhead – Reduce Your Footprint.

That’s where reality bites and feel-good ends. India does not feature in the top 10 list of shame of countries that waste food the most. The gluttonous US tops that list. America wastes enough food to fill the 90,000 seat Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena every day. Per capita food waste there has doubled since 1974. Most Indians, on the other hand, still buy their groceries at the neighbourhood market or sabzi mandi. But though our per capita food wastage by consumers is low compared to developed countries, Hippu S Kristle Nathan writes in the Deccan Herald “the same cannot be ignored given that nearly 70 per cent of Indians live with less than 2 dollar a day and don’t contribute to the wastage.”

World Environment Day slogan Think Eat Save Blame the government

A 2009 UNEP study claims India loses nearly 23 million tonnes of food cereals, 12 million tonnes of fruits, and 21 million tonnes of vegetables every year. Most of it lost due to improper storage and distribution. Reuters

The average urban household in India wastes 100 kg of food per person writes Avalok Langer in Tehelka.

Look in your refrigerator

This is not just about the lavish buffet at the high society wedding. It’s about the choices we make every day. Tehelka looked inside the refrigerator of a journalist who lives on her own in New Delhi. On that day she threw away a litre of milk, a packet of kaffir lime leaves, 2-3 dried lemons, a mango and some brinjals.

“The milk I forgot to put back in the fridge last night. The lime leaves were for a Thai curry, but I didn’t know what to do with the rest. The lemons and brinjals were at the bottom of the vegetable tray in the fridge and going off.”

We have all been there especially those of us who don’t live in large extended families. Every time we shop at a supermarket we buy that sealed packet of lime leaves or curry leaves and only use a handful. The rest rots quietly along with that half-empty can of coconut milk. We waste food because we buy what we want, not just what we need. Food might be lost on the highway. Food is wasted in our homes. There is a difference.

“We have higher standards for our meals, but diminished knowledge about how to maximize our use of food,” writes Jonathan Bloom in American Wasteland. “Many of us don’t even trust our own noses to judge when an item has gone bad.” Add to that what Bloom calls “the pornography of perfect food” which tosses aside that perfectly good but bruised fruit and food wastage balloons. It’s epidemic in America and Europe. But India is getting there as well.

Buffet table to garbage dump

In India, these days, we love to eat out more and more. “Food likely makes up 60 percent of the average sit-down restaurant’s dumpster contents,” says Bloom. “Forget swank hotels in the metros, a city like Bhubaneswar wastes around 26,000 tonnes of food in its restaurants, social gatherings and households annually,” writes Tehelka. The Times of India estimates that in Pune nearly half of the over 130 tonne leftover food collected from its hotels and restaurants is fit for consumption but lands up in the bin or the garbage dump.

Even worse, we waste food in a way that is no use to others along the food chain.

“Earlier, an entire food chain consisting of stray animals and birds were sustained on the leftovers but when we start throwing the food in plastic bags, it ends up into animals’ stomachs that causes their painful deaths,” says Dilip Surkar, executive director of the Vikram A Sarabhai Community Science Centre.

Food with visas

This is waste we don’t really think about because it is miniscule compared to the food rotting in warehouses or on those trucks lumbering down potholed highways. Instead we go to that fancy restaurant because its new menu brags about its Chilean sea bass or Norwegian salmon or New Zealand lamb. We don’t stop to think about what it takes to bring all that to our table from across the world. Or what it takes to send our best Hilsa fish abroad. “Most of it goes to the US,” says chef Joymallya Banerjee of the restaurant Bohemian in Kolkata. “Most restaurants do hilsa festivals. It’s all frozen fish from Bangladesh.”

Fish and meat with visas have become the passports to gourmet classiness – a sign that we you have arrived. The irony is this is a country with miles of coastline and lots of local fish that never comes to the market anymore. “There’s an immense variety of fish caught on the coastline that are not used,” food writer Vikram Doctor said in an earlier interview. “Meanwhile sea food restaurants are taking fish that’s imported. Norwegian salmon is seen in the west as a problematic product. Here it’s a premium product.”

The best hilsa gets exported to America. The Norwegian salmon comes to India. The humble greens find fewer takers. And a billboard for a new restaurant promises "Food so good, you’ll never need to eat at home again". In India food was the way we measured out love. In the new India it has become just another way to measure aspiration. Unfortunately reducing our own footprint is not something we aspire to yet.

Think. Eat. Save.

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