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May 24, 2024

Climate Change and Heat Waves Worsen Food Waste in India

In the early hours of the morning in Bhubaneswar, wholesaler Gadadhara Mohanty nervously awaits the arrival of banana-laden trucks from distant farms. Without refrigeration in his storeroom, even a day’s delay can diminish the value of his stockpile by at least 10 percent. Sorting through bushels upon their arrival, he anxiously inspects for any signs of decay. “There’s a huge loss during summer months if the sales lag,” he laments.

This scenario is emblematic of a broader issue in India, where up to 15 percent of fruits and vegetables perish post-harvest despite persistent malnutrition and hunger. The root of this wastage lies in inadequate infrastructure. Small-scale farmers, predominant in India, lack the means to invest in cooling and refrigeration throughout the supply chain. Consequently, India discards nearly 80 million tons of food at the retail and consumer level annually, second only to China. Climate change, with its intensifying heat waves, threatens to exacerbate this crisis in South Asia, one of the most vulnerable regions to rising temperatures.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has modernized much of India’s infrastructure, the agricultural sector still lags behind. Despite increased production of grains, fruits, and vegetables, refrigeration remains insufficient. Outside urban areas, storage, transportation, and retail distribution are hampered by poor road conditions and the considerable distances between farms and wholesale markets. This spoilage during transit inflates procurement costs, which in turn drives up consumer prices—a major concern as India approaches its elections next month. Unlike grains, which can be stored for long periods, produce’s short shelf life poses significant challenges.

Bananas, a case in point, travel nearly 24 hours from farms in Andhra Pradesh to reach wholesale markets in Bhubaneswar. As the world’s largest producer of bananas, India faces significant losses with this highly perishable fruit. Despite efforts to keep the fruit cool with leaves during transit, the inadequacies of this method are evident: India lost Rs 1.53 trillion ($18.4 billion) worth of food in the fiscal year 2020-21, with a significant portion from spoiled fruit.

“The cold storage capacity hasn’t done justice to the small-holder farmers of our country,” says Pawanexh Kohli, former chief of the National Centre for Cold-Chain Development. Small farmers are often compelled to make distress sales due to lack of adequate storage facilities. Soaring temperatures further exacerbate the challenges for these farmers. In Andhra Pradesh, the second-highest recorded temperatures since 1901 have resulted in significant crop losses, adding financial strain on farmers like Venkatanaidu Guntreddi, who grows bananas on 150 acres. The absence of affordable cold storage solutions leaves him with few options to protect his produce.

“There is no profit in cultivation because brokers make most of the money and we are hit by extreme weather,” Guntreddi explains, highlighting the urgent need for government support to establish processing units for products like banana chips and wine, which could mitigate losses from heat-damaged crops.

India’s cold storage capacity exceeds 30 million tons, predominantly used for potatoes, a staple in Indian cuisine. However, there is a glaring shortage of refrigerated trucks and pack-houses for fruits and vegetables. This lack forces farmers to sell their crops immediately, often at whatever prices brokers offer, due to the absence of nearby cooling facilities. The government provides subsidies to set up storage facilities, but many farmers still find the costs prohibitive.

Siraj Hussain, a former farm secretary, points out that investors are reluctant to modernize infrastructure due to the predominantly informal nature of food sales through street vendors and small shops. This disinterest in investing in the food chain compounds the problem.

On a typical day, Bhanu Rokkam, a banana farmer from Thotapalli, begins his harvest at dawn to avoid the extreme heat. By mid-morning, he has gathered about 250 bunches, sold to brokers at a price that is 12 percent lower than what he would get in cooler months. This reduction reflects the brokers’ exploitation of the hot weather to negotiate lower prices.

In Odisha, the lack of cold storage facilities forces retailers to purchase only what they can sell daily, limiting their ability to stockpile and affecting availability. Consumers bear the burden of these supply chain losses through higher prices, exacerbated by the heat.

Mahadev Barik, a street vendor in Bhubaneswar, faces losses of up to 30 percent on extremely hot days, often selling below purchase price to avoid total spoilage. As temperatures soar, he now operates his cart in the evenings, adapting to the changing climate but still struggling with the persistent challenge of food waste

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri

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