Food security has become one the most complex global challenges today with an increasing population wanting a sustainable, secure supply of safe, nutritious, and affordable high-quality food despite limited access to water and land, increased costs of fertiliser, and fuel for storage and transport.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the carbon footprint of food spoilage is estimated at 3.3 gigatonnes of CO2 - if food waste were a country it would rank as the third highest national emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China. Every year 1.4 billion hectares (roughly 30 percent) of available agricultural land, is used to grow food that is subsequently wasted. Surface and groundwater used to produce food that is wasted is more than what is used for agriculture by any single country, including India or China.
If managed properly, the current food production is enough to feed a sizeable chunk of the population. However, as per FAO’s 2014 estimates over one-third of the produce goes to waste. The Environmental Protection Agency of the United States credits food wastage as the second-largest component of solid waste in developed countries.
What accounts for India’s chronic food insecurity?
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), over one-fourth of India’s population lives under the poverty line in urban as well as rural areas and is estimated to be chronically hungry.
According to Department of Agriculture, farm output has been setting new records in recent years. Food production has gone up from 208 million tonnes in 2005-2006 to over 263 million tonnes in 2013-2014. Even with the current bulging population, India needs only 225-230 million tonnes of food every year. Clearly, food production is not the issue that our country is facing. This brings to light the million dollar question - what accounts for India’s chronic food insecurity?
There’s just one and only one answer - wastage. According to Department of Agriculture, food worth $8.3 billion, or nearly 40 percent of the total value of annual production, is wasted. This holds true even for non-perishable food items.
Various initiatives have been undertaken in the recent past to address food wastage, and packaging is one of the solutions which could reduce spoilage conclusively. The value of good packaging practices to sustainable food systems has been recently established. A ‘life cycle assessment (LCA)’ approach and a comprehensive view of the subject gives credit to flexible packaging beyond just its light-weighting, durability and flexibility properties.
The value of packaging
The Advisory Committee on Packaging in the United Kingdom found that food waste has at least ten times the environmental impact than packaging waste, and that’s before taking account of methane generated from decayed food. About 300 gms of food, requires only 6 gms of packaging and 1 kg of salt requires less than 10 gms of flexible packaging, ie a product to pack ratio of over 50 percent and 100 percent respectively. Therefore, the amount of material required to ensure food does not go waste is relatively miniscule.
The primary factors that trigger food spoilage are - light, moisture, development of microbes, temperature and oxygen retention. Flexible packaging addresses four out of these five challenges to a great extent.
The increase in disposable income in Asia, the change in lifestyle the simultaneous rise in nuclear families has shifted the preference from rigid to flexible and smaller portion packaging. Right-sized packaging, re-sealable pouches help reduce consumer food wastage. At the same time, they increase convenience by making packages easy to handle while optimizing cost. Abuse-resistant plastics and barrier layers increase package durability, extend food quality, and prevent food spoilage.
According to the Industry Council for Research and Packaging on the Environment, flexible plastic packaging increases shelf life and helps reduce in-store waste from 3 percent to less than 1 percent. Packaging food for protection and preservation has benefits that extend beyond reducing wastage: it leads to reductions in consumption of critical resources like water, raw material and energy, while reducing greenhouse gas generation and solid waste. This is because with factors like increased shelf life there is less waste generated all along the supply chain from farm to store.
Various advances have been made in technology to provide polymers from same family as part of rigid and flexible packaging of the same pouch. These polymers are easier to reuse and recycle post consumption. A macro-molecule does not dissolve by heating alone. It interacts with its environment along its entire life-cycle. Therefore, the total energy involved in recycling reduces if the plastics of nearly identical composition.
The United Nations has listed ending starvation as a Millennium Development Goal. Governments across continents are coming together to achieve this endeavour. Innovative packaging provides a solution for decreasing the burden on the ecosystem. By extending the lifecycle of food and protecting it against spoilage, modern packaging ensures that we can feed the world with provisions that are nutritious and safe to consume.
Vipul Babu is sales director (Indian Subcontinent) of Dow Packaging and Speciality Plastics, Dow Chemical International Pvt Ltd (Dow India)