Growing up in post-colonial India, in an era that prefaced running water, 24/7 electricity, and electronic gadgets and appliances, I quickly learned about food economics. My emerging middle-class family, consisting of my parents, brother and me, had enough to satiate our hunger, sans any frills or excesses. Shopping for seasonal fruits, vegetables and groceries was a daily ritual, picked up on foot from the local markets, in home-sewn cotton bags. My mother – a local school teacher -- miraculously transformed raw foods into delectable works of art on a kerosene-fueled pump stove in a dimly-lit, windowless kitchen that doubled as a dining room. Peelings and spoils were recycled back into mother Earth through composting. Dessert and fried foods were rare treats; every crumb was savored and every bead of the used oil was reused. Water was our favorite beverage. "Dine in" meant eat at home; "take out" was yet to be invented.
My parents excelled at planning and cooking the appropriate amounts of food, regardless of the headcount. Leftover storage was a non-issue as neighborhood volunteers consumed any occasional leftovers: a poor neighbor, a slum dweller who served as a part-time maid, even cows or dogs. Granted, the family’s economic reality dictated our choices; however, the "don't waste" mantra was an inextricable part of our non-materialistic muse, seamlessly woven into life’s facets like yarn in cloth. Overall, a mindful, healthy and happy lifestyle rendered my family’s foodprint minimal.
Fast forward to 2013. The population has burgeoned. Global food production is up and has taken a big bite out of world hunger and malnutrition. Food technology, pesticides, fertilizers, and state-of-the-art irrigation, harvesting and processing have revolutionized agriculture and related industries. Food packaging, storage and transportation is at its best, prolonging foods’ shelf-life and creating thousands of jobs. Yet, millions still languish in hunger while tons of avoidable food wastes end up in landfills!
On the global front, food wastes in the entire supply chain -- from farms to supermarkets -- have exhausted resources, destroyed environmental balance, spawned food-price sticker shocks and possibly triggered climate change. On the personal front, food wastes -- a symptom of our over-reliance on modern conveniences coupled with gluttony and physical lassitude -- have detracted us from the sustainable lifestyle the ancients had followed for millennia.
Looking back on my childhood, three lessons flare into existence:
1. Awareness: Awareness of thoughts, actions and behaviors can significantly influence our food habits. Plan ahead, buy and cook only what is needed, buy by the pound or the smallest available size, partner with a neighbor or friend to split bulk purchases, especially perishables, and eat mindfully. Such measures can save both the wallet and the environment.
2. Education: Buying local, emphasizing quality over appearance, and educating ourselves on ways to REDUCE, REUSE & RECYCLE avoidable food wastes are responsible investments. Committing to live a healthy and sustainable lifestyle can be a powerful motivator for our youth to identify and emulate zero-waste practices.
3. Connectivity: For the ancients, conservation was a way of life, perhaps an economic and religious edict, but definitely one that evoked a deep understanding of the synergy between all living things and the environment. The use of self-control to rise above the roar of hoarding and modern conveniences can help current and future generations reconnect to their obscured, sustainable selves.
We have one Earth, characterized by an exploding population vying for finite resources. Food equity lies in embracing common-sense practices that reduce wastes, safeguard nature, and inspire wisdom and harmony – not just for ourselves, but for all, for years to come.
Join the United Nations Environment Programme on June 5 to celebrate World Environment Day and share your efforts to reduce your food wastage footprint or foodprint.