As part of an MIT Public Service Center and International Development Initiative fellowship, we spent the past five months researching sustainable approaches to reducing agricultural food waste in India. We chose to tackle this issue as we both have an interest in waste reduction and prevention, and we saw a significant opportunity to make a difference in India: Reports indicate that as much as 20 to 40 percent of food grown in India spoils before reaching consumers. This translates to millions of tons of wasted food each year.
We set out to learn more about India’s agricultural sector and to research how new business models, policies and technologies could help address the inefficiencies. Over the course of our project, we spent nearly a month traveling throughout northern and eastern India, interviewing farmers, traders, commission agents, market operators, consultants, shipping and storage companies, policymakers and researchers along the way.
We uncovered a number of issues in the current supply systems that account for an enormous amount of food waste. At the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, Dr. M.S. Sidhu explained to us how infrastructure shortcomings — including a lack of proper food storage and poor roads and rail links, especially in more remote parts of the country — reduce the efficiency of the supply chain and result in avoidable spoilage. Additionally, traders and commission agents we spoke with throughout Haryana, an agricultural province in the north, complained that government-run food programs designed to administer millions of tons of grain to low-income families each year are rife with inefficiency and corruption.
We also found that price volatility, which could be reduced through improved information transparency, leads to significant uncertainty. In extreme cases when prices unexpectedly plummet, it becomes economical for farmers to allow crops to rot in the field. Colonal Raina, a long-time wheat farmer, explained to us that a recent drop in potato prices caused by overproduction led farmers in his community to dump their potatoes in the streets to protest government inaction.
Finally, scale is a significant challenge. Since the average farm in India is just several acres, compared with hundreds in most developed countries, it’s challenging for farmers to invest in more efficient technology. This slows the dissemination of best practices and information and puts farmers at a disadvantage. It’s clear that both innovative technological and entrepreneurial solutions as well as thoughtful policy changes are needed.
While the obstacles seem enormous, we encountered many entrepreneurs, researchers, and start-up companies that are making meaningful progress toward reducing waste and improving efficiency. They’re approaching the challenges using a number of innovative technologies and business models, and they’re getting attention.
One such example is Gangotree Eco Technologies, a waste-to-energy start-up company led by Santosh Gondhalekar in Pune, a city of more than 3 million people. Gangotree has developed proprietary methods to convert food waste to renewable energy and is working with Pune’s municipal officials to use the city’s waste to power street lights. Gondhalekar believes Pune can be a waste-free city in just a few years and is rapidly expanding his business to accomplish this goal.
With no shortage of innovative and passionate entrepreneurs who want to make a difference, India appears to be poised to begin making meaningful progress toward reducing food waste.