Asia Pacific

Shift towards sustainability sees India lead the way in combatting food waste

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Grassroots and government initiatives have seen India take an enthusiastic stance on minimising food waste and maximising sustainability, reports Thomas Lawrence

With food waste standing at 1.6 billion tonnes per year globally – that’s a third of the food produced for human consumption lost – the need to increase sustainability in the supply chain is a worldwide issue. Recent figures from Boston Consulting Group suggest waste will have increased by another third come 2030.

The problem is most profound in developed countries, where the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates $680 billion worth of food is wasted annually. In industrialising countries, by contrast, the figure is roughly $310 billion.

But with hunger and malnourishment more prevalent in developing countries, there is an urgent need to crack down on food waste. India’s Economic Times estimates nearly $35 million worth of food is wasted on a daily basis in the country – particularly shocking given 194 million Indians are going hungry, with the country ranking 100 among 119 nations in the most recent Global Hunger Index.

It’s true that booming growth in recent decades has helped to raise living standards across the board in India. But with growth comes inequality. Uneven infrastructural improvement means different areas of the country are better placed to tackle starvation. Even within urban centres, nutritional intake varies widely between those in rich neighbourhoods and slum dwellers.

In such an environment, redistributing food that would otherwise be wasted can make a big improvement to quality of life for large numbers of people. Realising this, community and government-led efforts are on the rise to provide the infrastructure needed to solve food waste and malnutrition in one fell swoop.

Local and legislative initiative

Recent years have seen the Indian government ramp up the momentum in efforts to improve sustainability. Rules have relaxed around cumbersome legislation; in 2012, 100% foreign direct investment was permitted in cold storage, with subsidy schemes and grants on offer to improve private participation. Correct storage of food is one of the major battle lines in cutting down waste and getting surplus produce to the people who need it.

As New Delhibased foodservice consultant Rajat Rialch FCSI points out, this momentum has extended to sustainability and recycling. “The government has come out with a law that any major food waste organisation – especially hotels, hospitals, and cafeterias – have to employ organic waste composters. At community level, the same thing is getting moved to residential complexes.”

These initiatives are not exclusively a top-down enterprise; non-governmental organizations (NGOs), charities and concerned townspeople are taking matters into their own hands.

“Community fridges are a great idea which have multiplied by leaps and bounds,” says Rialch. “It started from Bangalore but now in all major cities you will find this – they started from commercial food left overs and now you will see them in residential complexes.”

The rapid expansion of community fridges has sparked similar initiatives as far afield as the UK, where the Hubbub network has cited the Indian example as an inspiration in the set up of its 32-strong countrywide fridge project.

“There are also quite a lot of Millennials who have started food pick up vans,” says Rialch. “These go to partner restaurants after the meal timings, picking up the food then distributing it to the needy.”

A bumpy road ahead?

Despite good will from all sides, India has its fair share of roadblocks to contend with in the quest to cut waste in the supply chain. As Rialch explains, “laws towards sustainability are not very effective, because such things can only be successful once you can be convinced of following good practices.”

Putting the circular economy into action in a country of over 1 billion people requires more than just legislative impetus; “with a 40% illiterate population, it will take time,” says Rialch.

But Rialch also thinks a cultural shift is afoot which could make sustainability a greater factor in Indian life in the coming years: “I think it’s the young generation which is more focused on wastage – they are coming up with unique ideas towards sustainability,” he says.

In addition to the ethical and cultural imperatives to reduce food waste, there’s a growing realisation globally that it makes good business sense. How can foodservice consultants in developing nations convince their clients to tap into the anti-waste drive coming from governments and the wider community?

Rialch recommends a “zero waste policy” from the outset to ensure products and processes minimise toxicity, conserve resources and prevent them from being thrown away. “Disciplining the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), maintaining the air quality in the back of house (BOH) and kitchen areas, following the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) standards and ensuring that the energy efficiency is maximised will help further the goal of being environmentally conscious,” he adds.

There’s no guarantee it will be plain sailing, but the steps taken across India already reflect how rapidly developing countries can get themselves on the path to sustainability. Businesses dealing directly with the supply chain have a crucial role to play; foodservice consultants in the region should take note.

Thomas Lawrence


Pictured: a street market in Bangalore, India