India ranks 103rd out of 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index, making it vulnerable to the threat of Food Insecurity. United Nations Development Program (UNDP) found that across the world, 50% of the food produced is wasted and never reaches the needy. India too is grappling with the challenges of nutrition and food security. But what is more worrying is that 40% of the food that India produces is actually wasted!
Wastage can happen at multiple points in the life cycle of food due to varied reasons – during production (wastage due to climate change, pest attacks, poor varieties), harvesting and storage (lack of mechanization, cold storage, market accessibility) and consumption (discarding or wasting processed food). However, it is reassuring to know that most of these problems can be addressed with technological interventions, public private partnerships, policy rehauls and infrastructural advancements at multitude level.
Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR) estimates that 30-35% of the annual crop loss (64 million tonnes) is due to pests and insects. The challenge is not exclusive to India and many other countries have faced similar problems. However, they have been able to manage the situation by using seed varieties that can withstand insect attacks and in other cases simple inventions to prevent an attack. For instance, a team at Purdue University reinvented the humble storage bag named as PICS (Purdue Improved Crops Storage) bags. These are triple-sealed and hermetic, meaning any bugs that sneak in alongside the maize or millet will run out of oxygen long before they can cause an infestation.
Since the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began funding this effort in 2007, the bags have spread to nearly three dozen countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 19.3 million PICS bags have been sold worldwide till February 2019, most for between $2 apiece. A farmer that uses a 100-kilo bag to store cowpeas is estimated to reap an additional $27 in sales.
On the other hand, it has been found that planting of insect resistant corn varieties in the US reduced pest pressure in Mid-West, helping even those farmers who did not use these varieties. Both small and large farmers have accrued benefits of over $4.3 billion since 1996 due to reduced insect pressure in the US, a success that must be replicated in India.
Similarly, when farmers adopt mechanization such as combine harvesters and balers, they are able to harvest crops closer to the ground, leading to utilization of most of the above ground cultivated crop. Machines are also able to sow crops closer, in a more uniformed manner which optimizes use of land and other resources to grow more crops.
Once harvested, crops need to be kept under optimal conditions for long term storage, especially given India’s tropical weather. According to World Bank Report, post-harvest losses in India amount to 12 to 16 million metric tons of food grains each year, which could feed one-third of India’s poor. Currently, cold storage facilities are scarce and unevenly distributed. A small holding farmer can seldom afford or have access to such facilities and ends up storing his harvest on the field or traditional indigenous storages.
Looking at such adversities, Eric Verploegen, a research engineer at the MIT D-Lab, an interdisciplinary program focused on sustainable development, helped develop an evaporative cooler for small-scale farmers and vendors in places like Mali and Kenya. These coolers can be as simple as two nested clay pots with some wet sand in between. As the water evaporates, it pulls heat out of the interior of the container, chilling the contents by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. With this process, it can extend the shelf life of produce by several days, giving farmers more time to get their food to market.
In India too, emerging agri-tech start-ups are investing in safe and scientific storage with improvement of traditional storage structures, data mining and analysis to predict shortest routes to grain markets and weather conditions so that some of these challenges can be addressed. Government’s latest initiative, Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sampada Yojana, also focuses on integrated cold chain infrastructure which is promising to help address the post-harvest loss. As these efforts come together, there is hope that food wastage will reduce significantly by addressing these gaps in supply chain.
To conclude, it was back in 2015 that World Economic Forum announced India as a “food self-sufficient” economy as farm output touched 270 million tons as against the required 230 million tons. But to live up to that honor, India must significantly prevent food wastage by adopting safe and scientific technologies including pest resistant seeds and mechanization such as drones and harvesters.
Further, it is equally important to have enough cold storage facilities and extensive farm to market connectivity, so that the food reaches people in time, and helps the country contribute to the goal of zero hunger.