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In the middle of a severe famine in Somalia and a severe food crisis in the Horn of Africa, I was reminded of this aphorism. I happened to read a report on the enormous and unconscionable wastage of food that happens in India. Apparently, India wastes more food than Australia produces or the UK consumes. That at a time when millions of poor Indians, especially women and children are starving. Cannot think of a more ironical situation. The questions that come to mind are

  • Why does this happen?
  • Is it a management issue? Incompetence?

Nope. I think is it by design, though I wish that it were as simple as incompetence which would have made it easier to fix.

Why do I think that? Cos I feel that a country that has innovation (jugaad too), entrepreneurial actions and out-of-the-box management thinking at all levels, should be able to manage this issue. It is not even new. Economists have been talking about it for decades.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I believe that the food wastage is by design.

What happens when food rots or is wasted?

  1. Supplies dwindle leading to scarcity thus driving up prices.
  2. Increased prices naturally reduce access to food for the poor.
  3. The poor respond by using what development workers call ‘negative coping strategies’. Stripped of the jargon it means any or all of cutting down food consumption (disproportionately within the family), borrowing at usurious rates, selling assets at distress rates etc. Other extreme strategies include crime, early marriage of the girl child and commercial sex work.
  4. When the situation becomes critical, government steps in with regulation, release of food from ‘strategic stocks’, social protection schemes like food for work or employment guarantee schemes.
  5. To support these schemes, more food has to be procured, from within the country or abroad especially to replenish strategic stocks.

Who would deliberately want a food crisis?

Can we find out. I think we can. When the police investigate murders, the first thing they do is try and identify who benefits from the death. That strategy may be useful here too. So the question we need to answer is “Who benefits from food wastage / shortage?”

  1. Traders – if food rots, supplies reduce and prices go up.
  2. Importers – acute scarcity leads to imports, often done at the last moment leading to relaxed conditions (read oversight).
  3. Bureaucrats – who then get to design food-aid or other safety net schemes and get huge budgets for implementing them. We all know what huge budgets mean don’t we?
  4. Politicians in the ruling party – nobody loves a good food crisis more than politicians. It gives them a great chance to fulminate at the ‘nasty opposing party’ which, naturally is the root of all evil (it used to be the ‘foreign hand’ in socialist India) and then making tall promises of controlling prices and providing food.
  5. Politicians in opposition – well obviously.
  6. Development agencies – who get a chance to either implement government programmes and / or raise funds.
  7. Media – which can splash stories, show pictures and generally create a shallow racket that gets them the TRPs.  I must admit though that there is some serious coverage too but that is often lost in the overwhelming shrillness of the majority.
  8. Grain exporting countries – linked with importers (above) who get a chance to unload some of the sub-standard and / or overprices grain that they have. Remember it is an emergency and there are limited oversight mechanisms in force?

The only people who get short-changed are the poor producers and hapless consumers. One would think that in the larger scheme of things, they are only ones who matter.. Of course not. They are mere pawns in the larger game that the biggies are playing. In India, a number of influential people wear more than one of those first seven hats.

So is collusion possible? Yes. Is conspiracy too far-fetched? Not really.

Can this be stopped? Of course. Ok, maybe not completely, but it can definitely be curtailed. All it takes is some old fashioned political will. India needs to

  • Invest in infrastructure – roads, all weather stores, cold storages, refrigerated trucks etc.
  • Support research in longer lasting varieties of grain, fruits and vegetables – get private sector involved in this. Agriculture universities are a joke. They don’t move outside their campuses. No serious breakthrough has come from the Agricultural Universities. Definitely not enough to justify the budgetary spends.
  • Encourage private sector investment (small, medium or large) in retail and food processing – ease out the entry barriers for this. For a small producer, getting an FDA licence to make and sell tomato ketch-up can be a nightmare.

As population rises India is going to need more and more food. The pattern of food consumption & hence demand will also change. Unsustainable & rapacious agriculture has led to reducing yield.  Climate change is not helping any. I am afraid that we are looking at a crisis where per capita food supplies will dip further over the next few years. It is going to be more and more difficult to feed ourselves.

Increasing yield, research, improved technology, climate change adaptation will all take time. Till the time that this works, we need to work on other solutions.

The more obvious one is, at the very least, to NOT waste food – at all levels.

Waste not want not.