From Farm to Fork: India’s Fight Against Food Loss and Waste

Dr Satyanarayana Kandukuri, Food Processing practice lead, Sathguru Management Consultants

Food loss and waste (FLW) refers to the decrease in quantity or quality of food throughout the supply chain. ‘Food Loss’ takes place from harvest, slaughter or catch, up to, but not including, the retail level, while ‘Food Waste’ occurs at the retail and consumption levels. FLW results in economic losses and poses serious food and nutrition security challenges. FLW also has implications for natural resources used in producing the food lost, as well as environmental pollution and greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted in the process. 

Reducing FLW is a crucial part of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 12.3 calling for halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food loss along production and supply chains (including post-harvest losses) by 2030. Indicator 12.3.1 measures a country’s progress towards this target and has two sub-indicators: the Food Loss Index (FLI) and the Food Waste Index (FWI). The FLI measures changes in the percentage of losses for a basket of 10 key commodities by a country compared to a base period, while the FWI measures food waste at the retail and consumer levels (households and food services). 

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) are the custodians for FLI and FWI respectively. They work with international stakeholders to establish detailed methodologies and guidance and measure progress towards SDG Target 12.3. According to FAO estimates for FLI in 2019, approximately 14 per cent of food produced globally is lost from post-harvest up to, but not including, the retail level. The UNEP FWI Report 2021 estimates that the global average food wastage is 121 kg/person annually, with India’s household food waste estimated to be 50 kg/person annually, amounting to an estimated household food waste of 68.7 million tonnes/year. 

FLW measurement in India

India has been actively involved in implementing the SDGs since their adoption, and it has integrated them into its national development agenda and plans. However, India has not set an FLW reduction target under SDG Target 12.3, and does not report data on Indicator 12.3.1. One of the reasons for this could be a lack of nationally representative data on FLW generated through an approved or widely recognised methodology. Limited studies have been conducted on food loss and food waste estimation in India and the data on losses are not comparable due to the use of different methodologies and metrics. 

According to a study by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research – Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology (ICAR-CIPHET) in 2015, which estimated the economic value of harvest and post-harvest losses of major agricultural produce at the national level based on actual measurement of losses, the reverses were valued at Rs 92,651 crore, using 2012-13 production data at 2014 average annual prices. Lack of storage infrastructure at the farm level and lack of intermediate processing in production areas were identified as the primary causes of post-harvest loss. 

In another study led by FAO in 2018, a case study methodology was used to assess quantitative and qualitative food loss in rice, chickpea, milk and mango food supply chains in Andhra Pradesh. This study highlighted the critical loss points in select food supply chains and the need for capacity building at different levels of value chain actors, investment in large storage facilities, and other related infrastructure, such as roads and electricity, to ensure a reduction in food loss. Similarly, data on food waste is scarce, and there are no national estimates of food waste in India. 

Policy and legislation related to FLW 

India currently lacks a national policy or strategy for reducing food loss and waste (FLW) and there are no laws and regulations that limit or prohibit FLW. However, the country does have some regulations on solid waste management and food donation. In 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEF & CC) notified the solid waste management (SWM) rule, which emphasises segregation at source to channelise waste towards wealth by recovery, reuse, and recycling. All hotels and restaurants are required to segregate biodegradable waste and establish collection systems to ensure that food waste is utilised for composting or bio-methanation on the premises. The Compulsory Food Waste Reduction Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2019, which proposed the establishment of a committee for food waste reduction. Within six months of establishment, the committee was to publish a food waste reduction strategy that aimed to halve food wastage in India by 2025, require supermarkets and food manufacturers to reduce the food waste across their supply chains by 30 per cent by 2025 from a 2016 baseline, and make proposals for achieving a 50 per cent reduction of food waste by 2030. 

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) notified a regulation in 2019 to promote food recovery by businesses, providing legitimate backup to food donation in India and reducing wastage. The FSS (Recovery and Distribution of Surplus Food) Regulations, 2019, specifies the responsibilities of food donors and surplus food distribution organisations in ensuring that donated food remains safe for human consumption. FSSAI has developed guidelines for the safe and easy recovery of surplus food to help citizens, restaurants and recovery agencies Niti Aayog has released policy guidelines on promoting behaviour change to strengthen waste segregation at the source. According to Niti Aayog, composting waste food at home can save up to 15 billion tonnes of food from going to landfills.

Initiatives to reduce food loss and waste 

Cold chain solutions address the problem of food loss directly by increasing the shelf life of food, and indirectly by increasing the reach of food to markets and processing facilities. Several initiatives for cold storage development have been taken in the past in India, but the focus has now shifted to creating an integrated cold chain across the supply chain. The Ministry of Food Processing Industries is promoting the “Integrated Cold Chain and Value Addition Infrastructure” scheme to create infrastructure facilities along the entire supply chain, without any break from farm gate to the consumer. This includes pre-cooling, sorting and grading facilities at the farm level; multi-product/multi-temperature cold storage, controlled atmosphere (CA) storage, packing facility, individual quick freezing (IQF), blast freezing in the distribution hub; and reefer vans and mobile cooling units for the distribution of perishable produce. The private sector is also providing solutions and services that can address the cold chain sector and reduce FLW. Examples include Ecogen, which provides solar-based cold storage solutions suitable for farm gate, and WayCool, which streamlines the fresh produce supply chain for efficiency. 

Food waste in India is generally managed by producing compost, animal feed, value–added products or through food donation. A notable case is the Kumbakonam Municipality, which processes 40-42 tonnes of biodegradable waste per day through five micro-composting centres and 34 onsite composting centres (producing compost) and a bio methanation plant (producing biogas). The responsibility of food waste collection was entrusted by this municipality to hotel associations, which are major waste generators. The private sector in India is also taking initiatives in food waste management and creating circular processes. Players like Avris Environment Technologies have developed a compact bio-digester that converts food waste, kitchen and garden waste into biogas and organic manure. Wastelink assists food manufacturers in managing their surplus and waste by transforming it into animal feed. Loopworm grows black soldier fly larvae using waste food, which are then used to produce protein-rich fish and poultry feed. 

The FSSAI started an initiative called ‘Save Food, Share Food, Share Joy’ to promote food donation and reduce FLW in the country. As part of this, FSSAI created the Indian Food Sharing Alliance (IFSA) – a network of partners, food donors, food recovery agencies and NGOs, thus facilitating infrastructural and logistical support to help solve food waste and hunger in India. The India Food Banking Network (IFBN), a multi-stakeholder collaboration, supports the recovery of surplus inventory of good quality packaged food (within the best-before date of products) from the food industry and connects it to feed the needy. The regulations and guidelines for ensuring the safe storage and distribution of collected food, and the governmental support in promoting food recovery services, are expected to help in reducing food waste in India. 

Challenges and recommendations for reducing FLW 

The cold chain throughout the supply chain remains a major challenge in India. The uneven distribution of cold storage, lack of access to multi-product pack-houses, pre-cooling and cold storage near the farm gate, and inefficient cold logistics result in significant losses across perishable produce. India needs to create an efficient and integrated cold chain to reduce FLW. 

India lacks a national policy and national strategy for FLW reduction. In the absence of a predetermined FLW reduction target under SDG 12.3 and a lack of established methodology for measuring FLW, efforts to reduce FLW in India may not lead to quantifiable results. There is a need to create a mechanism to generate data on FLW using appropriate methodologies that will enable monitoring and evaluation of FLW reduction at the national level. 

India needs to develop a policy that encourages the active participation of the private sector in FLW reduction. Research grants and fiscal incentives such as tax exemptions can encourage participation by academia, industry and startups in FLW reduction or food waste valorisation. 

Unlike South Korea, which has adopted regulations and policy guidelines to reduce FLW, India does not have laws and regulations that prohibit or restrict the generation of food waste. South Korea is considered a model for food waste management, as it has increased the amount of food waste recycling from 2 per cent in 1995 to 95 per cent currently, thanks to a helpful regulatory framework. It implemented strict FLW policies by banning the dumping of food in landfills in 2005, introducing compulsory food waste recycling using biodegradable bags in 2013, and citizens were made to pay for food waste disposal by weight. It is necessary to have similar laws and regulations in India to reduce FLW. 

National standards are required to enable the safe use of food waste as animal feed and other value-added products. Regulatory frameworks need to be adopted to ensure that food waste being used and processed for feed and other products at the production site do not cause environmental pollution and that the safety hazards in food waste being used for feed production are addressed. 

Lack of public awareness of FLW, its impact and the factors responsible for FLW is another challenge. Awareness campaigns, conducted through partnerships between various stakeholders, on responsible consumption practices by consumers, serving sizes and plate waste in restaurants, canteens, etc., can help reduce FLW. To guide the disposal behaviour choices of consumers, food waste and non-recyclable products could carry suitable colour labels for disposal in appropriate dustbins. 

Reducing FLW is crucial for addressing food security, reducing carbon emissions, and building resilient food systems. FLW reduction needs to be recognised as a priority action agenda that requires collaboration and coordination among all the stakeholders.

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