Updated: April 7, 2021 8:49:21 am
Recently, on a food research trip to the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, I watched a rather extraordinary traditional ritual. The entire mountain village of Satta in Tons Valley came together to slaughter, cook and honour a goat they had raised as a community for close to a year. Every part of the animal from head to tail was turned into something useful or delicious. Nothing was wasted. The community’s frugality is in stark contrast to how meat is consumed in most parts of urban India today, where the prime cuts are usually prized.
The problem of food waste is a relatively modern one. India is an ancient civilisation and we have been prudent about food for millennia. Our parents and grandparents, too, once approached food and cooking with the same prudence. Yet, somewhere along the way, we lost sight of this “waste not, want not” mentality.
Nearly 40 per cent of the food produced in India is wasted every year due to fragmented food systems and inefficient supply chains — a figure estimated by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). This is the loss that occurs even before the food reaches the consumer.
There is also a significant amount of food waste generated in our homes. As per the Food Waste Index Report 2021, a staggering 50 kg of food is thrown away per person every year in Indian homes. This excess food waste usually ends up in landfills, creating potent greenhouse gases which have dire environmental implications. Meanwhile, we continue to be greenwashed into amassing more “organic” and “sustainable” products than we really need.
This has been a problem for decades, and is worsening with time. It was only when the COVID-19 pandemic came along in 2020 that many of us began taking note. Affluent Indians were suddenly inconvenienced by things otherwise taken for granted, like procuring groceries or worrying about how long their supplies would last. We came to realise that the food we eat goes far beyond the few bites it takes for us to finish it. We started becoming more conscious of our food choices.
The pandemic not only exposed the problems on food waste but also compounded them. In the wake of the lockdown imposed last year, surplus stocks of grain — pegged at 65 lakh tonnes in the first four months of 2020 — continued to rot in godowns across India. Access to food became extremely scarce for the poor, especially daily-wage labourers. Although essential commodities were exempt from movement restrictions, farmers across the country struggled to access markets, resulting in tonnes of food waste. Meanwhile, instinctive hoarding by the middle class disrupted the value chain, further aggravating the situation.
So how can we, as individuals, bring about change? The astonishing statistics of food waste attributed to households and their irresponsible consumption patterns means that change needs to begin in our own homes. Calculated purchasing when buying groceries, minimising single-use packaging wherever possible, ordering consciously from restaurants, and reconsidering extravagant buffet spreads at weddings can go a long way. At the community level, one can identify and get involved with organisations such as Coimbatore-based No Food Waste which aim to redistribute excess food to feed the needy and hungry.
A strong sense of judiciousness in how we consume our food is the next logical step. We must attempt to change our “food abundance” mindset to a “food scarcity” one, working our way towards a zero-waste end goal. And for the food that is left behind? Feed someone else or, at the very least, compost it so it doesn’t end up in landfills. Be open to incorporating nose-to-tail cooking when it comes to meat and seafood (fish head makes a fantastic curry!). The roots, shoots, leaves and stalks of most vegetables are perfectly edible. Regional Indian recipes like surnoli, a Mangalorean dosa made with watermelon rind, or gobhi danthal sabzi made with cauliflower stalks and leaves in Punjab, are born out of the ideas of frugality and respect for our food. Bengalis adopt a root-to-shoot philosophy throughout their cuisine — thor ghonto is a curry comprising tender banana stems, while ucche pata bora are fritters made with bitter gourd leaves.
You can start with influencing simple decisions about your own food consumption, and then get people in your immediate community to join. Acquaint yourself with and support initiatives proactively working towards reducing food waste, such as Adrish, India’s first chain of zero-waste concept stores, which is focused on getting people to shift from harmful, artificial consumption to an eco-friendly, zero-waste lifestyle. Incidentally, adrish translates to “mirror”. And a long, hard look at ourselves and the way we consume is, perhaps, what we need right now to begin making even a small difference.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 7, 2021 under the title ‘Portion control’. The writer was, until recently, chef partner, The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai
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