Union Food and Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan’s concern over food wastage shows that his heart is in the right place. But his recent statements raise questions about his understanding of an extremely serious matter. In an interview to this paper last week, the minister said: “At weddings and restaurants, a large amount of food is wasted at a time when the poor have to struggle for food. This wastage has to be stopped.” Paswan wants restaurants to specify portion sizes to enable customers to order the right amount to reduce food wastage. The suggestion to micro-manage how much people eat in restaurants trivialises a long-standing problem.
Studies have pointed out that staggering amounts of food are wasted due to inadequate or flawed storage and transportation facilities. Barely two weeks before the minister’s comments on food wastage, Minister of State for Food Processing Industry Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti told the Lok Sabha that India has a gap of 3.28 million tonnes of cold storage facilities for fruit and vegetables. A study submitted in 2015 by the agriculture ministry’s harvest research body, the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET), found that 67 million tonnes of food is wasted in the country every year. “Each operation and handling stage (after the harvest) results in some losses. Thus a huge quantity of agricultural production is reduced from the food chain,” the study noted. The food lost could feed people in the state of Bihar for an entire year. The value of this food is more than Rs 92,000 crore, two-thirds of the cost to feed the country’s 600 million poor under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). In 2013, the Global Food Waste Not Want Not Report found that the wheat wasted in India due to want of storage and production facilities is almost equivalent to the entire production of Australia. In 2013-16, 46,658 tonnes of foodgrains went bad in Food Corporation of India warehouses across the country, while another 143 tonnes were reported stolen — enough to feed eight lakh people under the NFSA.
The solutions range from educating farmers about better post-harvesting technologies to creating better storage facilities, locally-specific farm mechanisation to standardising farm operations and ensuring better transport facilities for food and food products to eating what is produced locally. There are also civil society and business initiatives of various types — including by individual restaurants and restaurant associations — to reduce food waste. However, in spite of all this, India ranks a lowly 97 out of 118 countries in the Global Hunger Index. It is unfortunate that instead of introspecting about where things have gone and addressing the problems in substantive ways, the government is thinking of tinkering with food portions in restaurants.