The companies that produced the world’s supply of loose-leaf tea had a problem: nearly one-quarter of their product was being thrown out.
Customers, who preferred whole tea leaves to make the perfect cuppa, had no use for the dust or the small bits of leaves known as fannings that came with their purchase.
So engineers came up with a solution: tea bags, which contained the fannings, dust and residue.
That’s the kind of ingenuity the world needs today to avoid food wastage because roughly half of the four billion tonnes of food produced in the world each year ends up as waste.
The U.K.-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers said that everyone from farmers to supermarket chains to finicky consumers is to blame for all the waste.
“We wanted to recognize this as a problem both in the developed and the developing world and point out that maybe engineers can help reduce the waste, perhaps with better storage and crop-production systems,” said the organization’s director of engineering.
In developed countries, roughly one-third of vegetable crops are rejected because they don’t look appealing enough for supermarket chains, and nearly half of the food purchased is ultimately tossed in the garbage.
In developing countries in South Asia and Africa, acute food-related problems can be seen in the fields and in the markets.
In India, for instance, as much as 40 per cent of all the fruits, vegetables and food grains never make it to the market. The country wastes more grain each year than Australia produces, and more fruits and vegetables than the U.K. consumes.
Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure mean that produce is frequently handled inappropriately and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions.
The main food terminal in New Delhi, for example, is a bustle of activity. On any given day, transport trucks with produce arrive from southern India following a 2,500-kilometre trip. With temperatures approaching 50 C, many of the pineapples, mangoes and other fruits and vegetables tucked into piles of straw in the backs of trucks are tossed aside.
While a better refrigerated transport service would help reduce that spoilage, few companies are willing to invest because of India’s unreliable power supply.
There’s no question improving things will take capital investment.
Corruption also plays a role. In the Indian village of Fazilka, a small community in western Punjab, three-metre-tall mounds of harvested grain sat in a government holding facility last year. The grain had been left rotting outside on pine palettes, uncovered for at least several years.
A local journalist told the Star during a tour of the facility that an elected official owns a nearby brewery and makes bootleg liquor. Once the grain starts rotting and fermenting, he takes it for free, said a reporter with Day and Night, a Punjabi cable news channel.
Meanwhile, in developed countries, retailers generate a collective 1.6 million tonnes of food waste each year because they reject crops of edible fruit and vegetables.
The trend started after World War II when the baby boomer generation emerged from rationing. “We’re used to eating the nicest looking foods, and when visitors come to your house, having more food than you can eat has become the norm.”
Supermarket chains should be working out ways to process unattractive produce like spotty tomatoes or bent cucumbers. For example, imperfect potatoes could be diced before sale.
“We need to look at the way we package. Why do we use plastics to display fruits and vegetables when we know that plastic causes them to go rotten more quickly?”
Many supermarkets want the best looking food “because that’s what customers expect.”
But one encouraging trend we’re seeing is that customers who are sure their fruits and vegetables are certified organic would rather have the odd blemish than one grown with pesticides.
Developing countries are also plagued by poor roads.
As much as half of the food that does reach supermarket shelves is thrown away by customers after the “best before” date is reached, even though the food is often still edible, although it may have lost flavour. Promotional “buy one get one free” offers also encourage consumers to buy more food than they need, which leads to wastage.
Still, with the world’s population expected to grow from seven billion to 9.5 billion by 2075, according to the United Nations, there are some reasons for optimism.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the report says, Columbia University has worked with farmers to triple the yield of cereal grains to three tonnes per hectare through improved seeds and more efficient use of fertilizers.
Innovations in the agricultural sector extend beyond dealing with food waste.
Several professors said more Chinese researchers are also developing innovations to address the food spoilage problem. In August, for instance, a group of Chinese researchers announced a coating for bananas made of crushed shrimp shells. The coating, sprayed on in the form of a thin gel, could keep bananas from ripening for at least two weeks.
• Smaller potatoes: McDonald’s for years has asked its potato producers to grow large tubers for french fries. But that was inefficient because long fries tend to fall apart during processing. “They were getting a lot of waste,” said Ralph Martin of the University of Guelph. McDonald’s has now started accepting more medium-sized tubers.
• Check the back of the fridge: Some waste in Canadian households can be tied to the growing trend of large fridges, Martin said.
“It goes back to the tradition of shopping for food once a week,” he said. “The food gets stuck at the back of the fridge and whatever doesn’t look fresh is tossed. The smaller the fridge, the less waste.”
• Fruit doesn’t have to be perfect: Supermarkets historically place restrictions on tomatoes and other fruits. But a British supermarket chain is experimenting with offering larger and smaller tomatoes for sale at a discount.
“I think the Canadian supermarkets are aware that this may be an area where they might explore but everyone feels a bit vulnerable about being the first,” Martin said.
Why India can’t feed her people
By Rick Westhead
From the moment Mather left the south Indian state of Kerala, heading 2,500 kilometres north to New Delhi, he knew there was no time to waste.
In the back of his faded red transport truck were 27.2 metric tons of pineapple, ripened and ready for sale. With temperatures approaching 50 degrees, the fruit might as well have been ferried in a broiler. More than 20 per cent would be tossed aside by the time he arrived, fought over by cows, dogs and the children from nearby slums.
As much as 40 per cent of all the fruits, vegetables and food grains grown in India never make it to the market. The country wastes more grain each year than Australia produces, and more fruits and vegetables than the U.K. consumes.
Food is an all-consuming crisis here. Waste is only one facet. Agriculture, infrastructure, inflation, innovation and corruption are others. It is a scourge and challenge for this country of 1.2 billion people, which has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies with an 8-per-cent annual growth over the past decade.
And yet, 40 per cent of Indian children remain chronically malnourished. In some areas, the hunger-related statistics are startling.
In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, for instance, two-thirds of children under five are malnourished — a rate that’s higher than most countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
In April 2010, reports surfaced that some children in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, were eating mud laced with silica, a raw material used to make glass and soap. The children were not officially classified as poor and were ineligible for official help.
Today, there is less food available for each Indian resident that there was 30 years ago. In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, India produced 436 grams of food grains per person per day, a drop from 445.3 in 2006.
An economics professor at the Tata Institute of Social Studies in Bombay, raised an alarm in a January report distributed by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania: “Before the situation worsens and we witness a civil war, it is better to feed the hungry citizens of this country.”
In many parts of India, the rich loam that once ran 70 metres deep on farm fields is long gone, sapped of its nutrients after years of aggressive farming. As well, groundwater levels in 20 per cent of the country are described by the government as “critical” or “over-exploited.”
For about three decades, starting in the mid-1960s, India enjoyed a “Green Revolution” during which food no longer seemed a problem. In 1999, Indian farmers were growing 70 million tons of wheat, compared to 12 million in the early 1960s.
But the Green Revolution came with a cost: hybrid grains demand relatively huge amounts of water and fertilizers, and plunging groundwater levels and soil erosion are the result.
The agricultural sector, which employs more than half of Indians, lags behind the rest of the economy, growing about 2 per cent a year.
Shrinking too are the country’s farms as inherited land is split and split again among brothers. The average farm in India is now smaller than five acres, 50 per cent less than in 1947, when India gained its independence. Smaller plots — some the size of a basketball court — typically means smaller incomes.
And with meagre earnings, many small farmers can’t afford to invest in new technologies that would increase their productivity.
This year, Indian officials estimate, farmers will grow about 1,798 kilograms of food per hectare of farmed land, down 5 per cent from 2010.
The Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington predicts India’s agricultural output will actually fall by 30 per cent by 2080.
“We are at a crossroads,” says M. Hasan, a scientist at the India Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi. “Farmers are desperate and uneducated and water is so scarce because they have used it faster than it can be replenished. So now, they are using so much more pesticides, fertilizers and insecticides. It’s killing the earth.”
Thanks to a surge in oil and petrol prices and the rampant corruption and inefficiencies of the public welfare system, food prices have skyrocketed by 20 per cent, and many of the country’s poorest—the labourers who actually grow the grains — can’t afford to buy them.
Some farmers see no way out. Between 1997 and 2009, an estimated 200,000 Indian farmers committed suicide, buried under mountains of rising debt.
“It’s a double crisis,” said a scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “There’s both falling food production and people who can’t afford to eat. It’s a tragedy.”
Innovation, Research and Development
India has a well-earned reputation as a breeding ground for innovation. Cities and remote villages teem with tales of ingenuity.
Just recently, Indian media have profiled an inventor who wheeled around Mumbai on a home-made, solar-powered scooter, an entrepreneur who has created a market for expensive writing paper made from elephant poop, and a group of university students who claim to have found a way to use the husks from coconuts to clean industrial spills in open water.
Yet stories about advances in the effort to solve India’s food crisis remain rare.
For one thing, young scientists simply aren’t interested.
“Agricultural research isn’t glamorous,” says Sunil Nath, dean of the biotechnology department at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. “In the summer when it’s so hot, you have to leave that air-conditioned lab and go out into the villages and fields. It takes willpower.”
While China pumps $3.5 billion into agricultural research — Chinese farmers grew 6.2 metric tons of rice per hectare in 2008, double India’s output — India’s spends a fraction of that.
In 2009, India spent about 0.6 per cent of its GDP on agriculture, down from 1.4 per cent in the 1980s. China, by contrast, spends 5 per cent.
“We do this half-hearted,” says a professor at Delhi University. “We have lots of brick and mortar with 46 agricultural universities and 17 national research centres, but how many papers published in top journals? Hardly any.
“There’s an agricultural fatigue,” he continues. “We have nothing new to offer. Look at Canada, where every 100 kilometres there’s a granary. Don’t we know how to make new grain silos?”
Since 1996, India has built seven grain silos for a total of 20, says Sumit Bansal, an official with the Food Corporation of India, which distributes food stocks to regulated shops. Canada has 400 silos.
Foreign big-box chains including Wal-Mart, U.K.-based Tesco, and France’s Carrefour all covet access to India’s $435-billion retail market and are anxious to expand beyond existing wholesaling practices. This may come with demands that they make investments in infrastructure to shore up electricity supplies and improve local roads.
This is, after all, a country where a 300-kilometre trip on roads near the capital can take eight hours.
And there’s a good chance the drive will be in the dark.
A reliable power supply is partly what is scaring companies from developing improved refrigerated transport services which would help reduce spoilage.
“The lack of power is a huge challenge.
While India currently has about 3,500 cold-storage facilities, it needs many more — enough to store an additional 10 million tons worth of food, according to a recent study by the consulting company KPMG.
In October, newspapers reported that in Punjab and Haryana states, India’s traditional breadbasket, auditors had discovered as much as 67,000 tons of grain rotting under the sun. It became a national scandal.
Increasing investment in agriculture is the right thing for the country but they aren’t doing that because it’s not why they are in politics. The average Indian politician is there to milk the system. Even now, at a time when we’re facing a demographic albatross.”
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