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Think. Eat. Save. And Make A Difference: World Environment Day 2013

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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.

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  1. Raj

    I didn’t get your Domino’s point. Yes you are correct about the packaging going to waste, but what is the alternative (apart from not eating that Pizza)? Preparing the same pizza (size and quantity) a few times a week will require a host of new utensils, cooking gadgets, fuel and food material. There will be a huge waste now thanks to the vast under-utilization of the resources you have purchased to make the same pizza at home. Also you are spending your time making this pizza, whereas you could be doing something better with your time.

    And that Zero Waste Lunch : It’s sad that your school indulged in such feel-good illogical nonsense. It would have been better if they taught some critical thinking skills instead.
    What does it mean to create without any waste whatsoever? We can only minimize waste or eliminate 1 type of waste but at a cost of generating another! How did they go about making the lunch? Did they buy vegetables from the market? If so, they have already taken part in a wasteful supply-chain. Did they actually grow the vegetable themselves? Unlikely!
    Now with the vegetable , did they remove certain parts of it? Did they cook it? What method? Did they use solar energy(which has tons of waste associated when manufacturing it) or was it gas/electricity (both directly or indirectly linked to fossil fuels) ? Did they wash the vegetables ? How much water did they use? Wasn’t that a waste of water ?
    The only solution (which is a meaningless solution) would be to starve and thus have a truly “zero waste lunch” !

    And reusing the plastic packets etc. that was just cosmetic. Tell me , if you had to buy a folder, would you buy a good sturdy folder made by some company or the one made by your friends using bhujia packets? My point is that these cosmetic changes benefit nobody. If someone could come up with a large scale way to make folders out of waste plastic and produce those at a price cheaper or same as the ordinary folders, that would be truly ingenious.

    And what’s this about “greater distance food travels from its place of production, the more damage there is to the environment on account of processing and transportation.” . This is not entirely correct as a lot depends on the supply chain. Food doesn’t travel much in India but the supply chain is very wasteful. Whereas the supply chain in USA and Europe is far more efficient even if it involves long travelling and processing. Many countries like Canada produce many times the food than they consume. They export large amounts of it to places where food can’t be economically grown , for whatever reasons. Should such countries cut-down on food production?

    Environmentalism has often some resemblances to religion. Religions are often full of overzealous brain-washed (or partially deluded) people who overrule logic in favour of feelings. Religions have a tendency to personify inanimate objects and make them gods who bless humans. Like the rain god, god of crops and fertility etc. Take this line “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.” The earth first of all, is considered an inanimate object. The ecosystem is composed of living organisms but as a whole one can’t say it is sentient. So it is incorrect to say it has “given” us things, as if it had some intent of giving it. And that goes for the “generosity” part too, I don’t think “Mother Nature” (another personification of earth) is being generous.
    And I would hardly call her generous too. I mean for most of human existence, we were hunter gatherers who killed animals and ate fruits. Agriculture is 10,000 years old which is a blink compared to the 3-4 million years human ancestors have been around. Even so, the fruits and vegetables you see do not grow at the sizes and quality in the wild. A wild banana is a fraction of the size of what we eat today. If anything, humans had to really struggle to rise.

    I agree that we need to take care of the environment for our own sake, but I am against the way people blame corporations and technology for the source of all environmental problems.

  2. Kavya Jha

    Aiyyo man. U miss the point. Where are you from btw?
    You might be right in saying those are cosmetic changes. But it is still, a start of something. No one is saying one has to swing to one extreme side. Oh wait, maybe you are. Just chill a bit. Sustainability will be a result of both individual change of habits and an economically scalable solutions. Everyone hasn’t found the guiding light in their lives like you have. So they will start by making their own small changes. If you can’t appreciate that, you shouldn’t discourage it either.

    1. Raj

      Ok tell me the points I have missed. You haven’t given any real criticism to my views
      I’m from India, although my views tend to be very “American” (A more appropriate term would be an amalgam of classical liberal, libertarian and objectivist )
      I don’t understand to what extreme I am swinging to. I’m fine if the teachers and students realize what they are doing to be cosmetic. All I am saying is that, in addition to those cosmetic exercises, kids should be taught sensible stuff and real-life case studies of successful organizations that do indeed profitably convert waste to useful stuff. They should be taught the impact of energy policies and how waste is generated, whether seen or unseen. Otherwise they end up growing in an intellectually stunted manner and become easy prey to people with hidden agendas. In case of environmentalism, a good deal of it has been hijacked by the anti-corporate left lobby. I have no love for corporations either but neither side should be allowed to manipulate well-meaning people into pursuing hidden agendas.

  3. Rhea Kumar

    Hi Raj, thank you for your inputs. However, I would like to clarify a few things.

    The purpose of the article was not to pull down Dominoes, Lays and other corporations or to undermine technology in any way. In fact, I made it quite clear in the article that the onus lies on the individual and not the government and corporations. The aim was to sensitize people on how their eating habits can adversely impact the environment and hope that they MINIMIZE the waste generated, not COMPLETELY ELIMINATE it. Obviously, nobody expects people to start making pizzas at home everyday or give up eating pizzas completely. And yes, probably the only way we can truly generate no food waste is probably by becoming sadhus and sanyasis, practicing penance and not eating! I’m certainly not advocating that, but neither am I advocating a relentless consuming culture that thrives on a huge daily dose of packaged food.

    Again, the Zero Waste Lunch was meant to sensitize the students about the amount of waste a single meal can generate. Of course, none of the groups was able to generate ‘zero waste’, but they made an effort to minimize the waste generated, and, in the process, took home some valuable learning. When we celebrate Earth Hour, its not as if individuals and corporations live in darkness for the rest of eternity! It’s merely symbolic and this is exactly what the Zero waste lunch sought to do. Similarly, its not as if students will make folders out of every bhujia packet they buy. Young children have a rather open mind and are the harbingers of change. So campaigns such as these aim to educate them about environmental and social issues so that they can implement changes in their lifestyle, in whatever little manner possible.

    As for your point about personifying and adulating the environment, I’d just like to say that writing is often spiced with rhetoric, but clearly, you don’t seem to understand that.

    1. Raj

      I know you didn’t mean to pick on Domino’s but my point was that when you are talking about waste, you need to have a holistic approach and look at the opportunity costs as well. Instead of just saying “Oh look so much waste”, you also need evaluate other alternatives and see which one gives the least waste and at what cost.

      Now the Zero Waste lunch issue, I assumed it was done with 12th Std students, since you are in 12th yourself. I was in 12th a few years back and I certainly would have voiced my objections. Such an exercise would have been great for 5th std kids, but I’d have expected more mature and in-depth analysis by 12th std kids. Once again I am not opposed to such cosmetic things but they should be used as an introductory learning aid and then move beyond them.

      Yes of course writing is spiced with rhetoric and poetic devices but it is for the artistic effect and is not supposed to be taken seriously. My point is that many aspects of the environmental movement have become quasi-religious in nature.

  4. Rhea Kumar

    1. I’ll repeat this again, I’m not telling people to stop buying packaged food altogether, but it is not harmful if one is aware of the consequences and cuts down on consumption a bit.
    2. The zero waste lunch was done for 8th and 9th standard students and organized by the 12th class students executive. We did have follow up sessions with the students after that to discuss ways in which food waste is dealt with and can be dealt with.
    3. The last part was meant for artistic effect. I understand what you mean when you say that environment has become like environment has become quasi-religious in nature, but I’m not a part of that school of thought.

    1. Raj

      1) Sure, agreed

      2) I guess its OK for 8th/9th std students

      3) Sure, I understand that you were doing it for the artistic effect. I was only pointing out that there are groups that take this literally.

  5. Kavya Jha

    @ Raj, I’m meant where from India, didn’t imply you were from the USA 😛 The organic farming post was already quite exhausting, so I wasn’t making any particular point here. The conversation is pretty much summative of what I’d have wanted to say so nothing further on that!

  6. Raj

    I’m from Mumbai 😛 Sure I have got of an idea of what you are trying to say.

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