Originally posted on The Times of India on April 5, 2021.
Emily Broad Leib teaches law at Harvard University. Researching food policies across 14 nations, she discusses important findings with Times Evoke, including what India is doing right in minimising food wastage — and what can be further shored up:
I run an educational program for law students on food systems. We think of how laws can be changed to remove barriers and align policies to more sustainable systems. We research tools governments can use to incentivise and require producers to adopt environmentally sustainable behaviour. The food system has a massive impact on the environment. Every step, from production to consumption, releases emissions including methane from livestock and CO2 from ploughing and tilling—all this is exacerbated when we waste food.
Globally, the FAO estimates we waste one-third of the food we produce. In the US, we waste about 40% and India is also moving towards that now. This is worrying as the IPCC on climate change finds food waste creates upto 10% of global climate change-related emissions. That includes production and wasted food releasing methane in landfills. There is therefore a triple bottom line benefit to reducing food waste.
Over the last two years, we’ve been analysing food policies across 14 nations. Diverse factors shape waste — in the US, some food gets wasted post-harvest because of the aesthetics of food production. If an apple is considered ‘imperfect’ and farmers know it won’t meet the standards of purchasers, it gets thrown away. Around 80% of food waste occurs in retail, food service and consumer households. Due to American farm policies, food is cheaper now than it’s ever been in history — this makes it easy for many people to not value it enough. Another causal factor is the relatively low cost of landfilling. That’s why in the US, 22% of landfill volume is just food.
Yet, many people are in dire need today — over 50 million Americans regularly use food banks now. However, there are barriers limiting food donation in the States, including a lack of awareness about food safety rules. In contrast, in India, I’ve noted a growing trend around the donation particularly of prepared food. Our researchers spent time with groups like Zomato Feeding India — they have a network of volunteers recovering food from universities, weddings and events which have cooked rice, lentils, etc., that can be safely donated. There is less donation of packaged foods and more of cooked food. It’s the opposite in the US. India also does very well with its Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI) — it’s one of the few countries in fact where the food safety agency considers it among its duties to ensure edible food is donated and not wasted. In most countries, the ministry of social welfare could be interested but not the food safety authority — I am very impressed by the effort and energy India’s FSSAI puts into this.
But, even in India, a lot of food gets thrown away because of low-cost landfills. This impacts food prices too. In the US, grocery stores plan for 15% of ‘shrink’ — food brought to the store but thrown away instead of being sold. This is baked into the cost of food, which in aggregate increases. New laws can change this. In the US, some states have structured laws penalising sending over a certain amount of food waste to a landfill — Vermont has seen a 60% increase in food donations due to this. Massachusetts has seen a 22% increase. It’s also created hundreds of new jobs in food banks, food to energy and composting schemes.
Labels make a difference too. Often, consumers discard edible food because the date on it has passed — but frequently, that date doesn’t relate to food safety. Shelfstable products like a box of crackers might not taste as crisp but there may be no risk to eating these. We need a role model policy indicating which date is about the quality and taste of food and which date is about food safety — standardising these could eliminate 4,00,000 tons of food from US landfills and create a 2.4 billion dollar benefit. The UK is doing really well with required labels, ‘best before’ indicating no safety risks and ‘use by’ for safety risks. We’d recommend India also standardises its food labelling.
A HUNGER FOR PERFECTION? In some food systems, edible fruit is discarded simply for not meeting ‘aesthetic standards’
Globally, food donors need better safeguards and more benefits like tax reliefs and CSR coverage to include food. Certificates, rewards and recognitions would incentivise many more people too. We need all this because the phenomenon itself is invisible — it’s easy to throw food away since it goes somewhere else and you’re not thinking about it. Most government policies have also focused on food safety and supporting farmers so far. But now, many people are thinking about food waste, especially linked to climate change and hunger. We’re seeing much more discussion across countries on mitigation strategies — for those working to stop food waste, this is a time of hope.