By Rhea Kumar:
I always feel rather lost at weddings. To start with, there is this mass of people in brightly coloured clothes who I’ve never met before and who claim to be close relatives. Then there is the deafening music that often drowns all conversation and the blinding brightness of a million lights, all bearing down on the guests and raising the temperature by several degrees to boot. But worst of all, there is the food. North Indian, South Indian, Gujarati, Continental, Chinese, Thai, Swahili: the multitude of dishes makes my head spin. I often wonder, what was the host thinking when he planned such a large spread of food? Is it meant for consumption or is it merely an indication of the host’s economic status that he can offer such an extensive and exotic collection of dishes? How much of that food is actually eaten? And what happens to the leftovers?
When we talk about being eco-friendly, the discussion usually revolves around using solar energy as opposed to fossil fuels, cutting down on paper-use to save trees, conserving energy, cleaning up rivers to boost marine life and planting more trees in parks. We criticize industrial plants for failing to cut carbon emissions and point fingers at the government for promoting diesel usage through price subsidies. Certainly, all of this is relevant and important. But there are environmental issues that are much more basic and simple, issues that are very close to each one of us, issues that touch the core of our lives: FOOD.
World Environment Day is celebrated on June 5 every year. This year’s theme, ‘Think. Eat. Save,’ is aimed at enabling people to make small changes in their lifestyle that can collectively have a profound impact on the environment. One of the ways to achieve this is by reducing the amount of food waste we generate. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, every year about 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted, most of which is thrown into landfills or incinerators. This decomposes into methane, a greenhouse gas. Besides this, global food production uses up 25% of all habitable land and 70% of freshwater consumption while being responsible for almost 80% of all deforestation and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. Statistics say that the water wasted when half a hamburger is thrown away is equivalent to the water utilized in a 60 minute shower! So the non-judicious use of one basic necessity (i.e. food) is in turn causing the scarcity of another basic necessity (i.e. water).
Tremendous damage to the environment occurs not because of direct wastage of food, but because of the wastage of all the material associated with food. Think about it – when was the last time you made pizza at home? The pizza base, the mozzarella cheese and that yummy readymade pizza sauce all come in plastic packaging. And as you start to prepare your pizza, these packages are ripped open and then thrown away in a matter of seconds, soon to be dumped in a landfill. When you order a sumptuous pizza from Dominos, it comes packed in a sturdy cardboard box, with several packets of chilli flakes and oregano thrown in along with a handful of paper napkins. What a colossal waste! All of this is stuffed inside an insulated case and carried by a young delivery boy who races across town through crazy traffic jams to meet the 30-minute deadline, jeopardizing his life and those of many others. Is it really worth it?
Apart from the environmental degradation, the other aspect of food wastage is the huge inequity in food consumption between the haves and the have-nots. The quantity of global food wastage (1.3 billion tonnes) is equivalent to the total amount of food produced in sub Saharan Africa. Around 1 in 7 people in the world go hungry everyday and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily of hunger. Against the backdrop of these troubling statistics, is it fair that we should have a lavish spread of 1250 dishes at our weddings and throw it all away after the guests have pecked at it disinterestedly? What is even more important to note is that about one third of food wastage comes from households. So if each one of us would work on reducing our food wastage, at least some of those 20,000 children would live.
The question is: what and how? I would like to highlight an initiative taken up by the students in my school called the Zero Waste Lunch. Students from some of the senior classes were divided into groups and asked to prepare dishes of their choice in such a way that no waste was generated. No waste literally meant NO WASTE. From the plastic packet of the bhujia to the leftover vegetable peels, all the waste generated from the materials had to be reused in innovative and eco-friendly ways.
The response was fantastic and the students came up with exciting ways to reuse their waste. One group made beautiful folders from the plastic packets, while another used coconut shells as glasses, and another served delicious papri chaat in plates made out of leaves. An environmentalist was invited to judge the competition and interact with the students. Among the things he highlighted was the importance of using locally produced ingredients. The greater distance food travels from its place of production, the more damage there is to the environment on account of processing and transportation. Ever wondered why your favourite Lays chips packet looks like an inflated balloon and as soon as you open it, it collapses into about one-fourth its original volume with a handful of chips inside the packet? That’s because it comes in an inflated nitrogen-flushed pack to prevent damage during transportation over large distances, as opposed to a regular packet of chips bought from your neighbourhood bakery. Eating seasonal fruits and vegetables is another effective way of reducing the amount of energy wasted in making our food. In other words, don’t eat cauliflower in the summer and ladyfinger in the winter!
Before we start panicking, let me clarify that none of this implies we must stop eating our favourite exotic American corn or ordering food in from our favourite eatery! It is alright to indulge once in a while if we are conscious and careful in our daily routine. It is important to be aware that what we eat impacts those around us and therefore, we must cultivate the habit of exercising restraint and thinking before we eat.
So, the next time you pile your plates with noodles, only to throw most of them away when you spot something more enticing on the table, STOP, THINK, EAT and SAVE. For the environment isn’t just about global warming, industrial disasters and the Kyoto Protocol. The earth is the source of all the food we eat, it has given to us generously for aeons and aeons, it’s time we acknowledged its generosity and gave back.