Monday, June 24, 2013

Waste not, want not

The other day, I had to throw out a kilo of potatoes. I bought a bunch of vegetables, took them home and put away some inside the fridge. Potatoes and onions were placed on the shelf as usual.

Three days later, a luxuriant layer of white mossy fungus had appeared. So I threw away the potatoes, which were still inside the plastic bag. Of course, I felt guilty about wasting food. But I felt even worse because one corner of my brain had warned me: “Take the potatoes out of the plastic bag; wash and dry them or they might rot.”

This small bit of advice is part of a larger wisdom about food handed down to us – to women of my generation at least – by our mothers and grandmothers. But then we went to hostels and found jobs before we learnt to manage our own meals. Or, we allowed hired workers to take over the kitchen. Partly through neglect and partly because we cannot be bothered, we no longer apply that wisdom.

Some of us may have learnt the science behind food management – how air and moisture is trapped inside plastic, how fungus grows in dark moist places, how fruit can be ripened naturally. We may even retain this knowledge from school text-books. But we forget to apply it. We forget that it is one of the most important kinds of knowledge a human being can have. 

And this forgetting is costing us. Not just as individuals who are struggling to cope with food inflation, but as a nation where every other person is malnourished. Even Pope Francis has said that wasting food is akin to stealing from the poor.

The world produces more than enough food – four billion tonnes of grain. But 1.3 billion tonnes, one-third of the food produced, is wasted each year. Both developing and developed nations are responsible. Lack of good storage facilities or transport infrastructure are to blame, but so are unimaginative and wasteful lifestyles.

A recent series of articles in Tehelka pointed out that rural Indian households very rarely waste anything. Even peel and straw is used as fodder. But more and more Indians live in cities and they know very little about growing, storing, preserving or recycling food. Besides, supplying to people in urban areas isn't easy. Our current situation is so bad, we're losing 25-40 percent of India's fruits and vegetables. The food waste burden could be an appalling 100 kilos per urban household.

There's another kind of loss happening. The head of the United Nations panel on biodiversity, Zakri Abdul Hamid, had pointed out that the loss of diversity is intensifying the nutrition crisis. There are 30,000 edible plants around the world but we usually cultivate only 30 crops. Which means that every time there's a minor shift in ideal weather, soil or water conditions, and a crop fails, many more people are likely to go hungry. Animals are at risk too – 22 livestock species are on the verge of extinction because animals are being bred with the single purpose of extracting milk and related marketable produce, not because they are sturdier and more likely to survive in tougher climate conditions.

I can't help wondering how we got here – how is it that modern, fast-urbanizing nations are not aggressively promoting food management knowledge? Is it because managing food is low-paid or unpaid work? Or because many generations have never grown a single potato on their own? Or because people who can neither grow food nor care to experiment with dietary possibilities are the ones who control the economy?

First published here

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