Around 17% of food produced worldwide in retail, food servicing and by households – amounting to nearly a billion tonnes – is wasted every year. Nearly 14% of the total food produced globally is lost between the harvest and retail stages.

India's contribution to wasted food, at 68.8 million tonnes annually, is 7% of the global total, per the United Nations Environment Programme's Food Waste Index Report 2021. An Indian household, on average, wastes 50 kg of food every year, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution told the Parliament in March 2022. This was much less than most developed countries, the ministry had said. However, every fourth hungry person worldwide, is an Indian.

Food loss and waste accounts for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn contributes to climate change and extreme weather events. Reducing food loss and waste (FLW) can thus support both food security for the poor, and climate change mitigation efforts.

On September 29, 2022, as the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) marks the third International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, we found that India must bridge gaps in accurately measuring its food lost and wasted data, to effectively combat food waste.

What is food loss and food wastage, and how are these measured?

The Food Waste Index Report 2021 defines food as 'any substance – whether processed, semi-processed or raw – that is intended for human consumption.' Thus food also includes drinks and any substance used in the manufacture, preparation or treatment of food. It does not include cosmetics, tobacco or processing agents used along the food supply chain, or substances which are used only as drugs.

Food loss and food waste are distinct. The former refers to 'all the crop and livestock human-edible commodity quantities' lost through the supply chain, starting from the food production stage, whether due to problems during harvesting, storing, packing and transporting, or other infrastructural or market/ price mechanisms.

Food waste, on the other hand, refers to food that is wasted or thrown away intentionally because of consumers – whether in the food/ grocery retail or food service sectors, or in households – because of buying or preparing excess food, or food that has gone bad due to hoarding.

UNEP tracks food wastage data at three levels. Level 1 uses modelling and data extrapolation to provide an estimate of food wastage. Level 2 data are from studies conducted using particular methodologies (see graph below) to measure and report food waste. For example, a study reporting on food waste in the household sector using waste composition analysis and volumetric assessment. Or, a study focusing on the retail sector that uses a counting and scanning method.

UNEP's Level 3 data tracking is the most advanced level, providing additional information about disaggregation of food wastage according to the destination (landfill, composting, controlled combustion), or edible and inedible parts (eggshells, fruit peels). It can thus support the development of an appropriate food waste prevention strategy.

Where India stands in measuring and reducing food loss and waste

To measure food loss accurately, FAO recommends data collection for all stages before retail – harvest, post-production, storage, transportation, primary processing, and wholesale – to help countries tailor programmes to improve the efficiency and functioning of their food supply system.

India has conducted two national surveys on food loss in the last two decades, the 'Assessment of Quantitative Harvest and Post-Harvest Losses of Major Crops and Commodities in India', conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in 2005-07 and 2013-14. Overall, the least losses were reported for cereals and the highest for oilseeds, followed by fruits and vegetables.

Although India is one of few countries to have conducted two rounds of such a survey on food loss, said a 2021 working paper by the World Resources Institute (WRI), most research on FLW in India is focused on the quantity of post-harvest food loss. The WRI paper also found that empirical research on food wastage is scarce, and data on food waste at the household level is almost nonexistent in India.

Data sets on food wastage from India have a 'medium confidence' rating in the Food Waste Index Report, too. For the Indian estimate, three studies were identified, two of which were carried out in the same city (Dehradun), and all three were more than six years old. The sample size or length was either small or unclear in all the studies.

Initiatives by the government to tackle food loss and waste

India's primary challenge is "lack of cold chains and adequate storage facilities leading to a large amount of [food] loss along the supply chain," says India's Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Food losses in storage are generally higher than the losses in transport, the agriculture ministry said in August 2022.

The problems in the Indian food supply chain include inefficiency of government programmes, lack of transparency in revenue generation, insufficient storage facilities, and lack of comprehensive and accurate inventories, per a 2019 study by Delhi-based environmental research and action group, Chintan India.

ICAR has been taking steps to control food loss at the harvest and storage level, including developing structures for safe handling and shelf-life enhancement of farm produce, process protocols for food-based products, and training on post-harvest technology for farmers, entrepreneurs and self-help groups engaged in agriculture.

Other government initiatives include a Kisan Rail train service launched in August 2020, to transport perishable produce, and construction of rural agricultural produce godowns and cold storages, Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar, informed Parliament in August.

FSSAI has also launched the 'Save Food Share Food' social initiative to "help promote donation of surplus food and reduce food waste". Toward this, it had notified the Food Safety and Standards (Recovery and Distribution of Surplus Food) Regulations in 2019, which specifies the responsibilities of food donors and surplus food distribution organisations, to ensure that donated food remains safe for human consumption.