As a country, we are known for our frugal innovations. The most iconic being the colloquial term, ‘jugaad’, being an innovative way to solve a problem, especially when the number of resources available is scarce. And this is used in all walks of an Indian’s life - mechanic repairs, clothes, transport and food. The unique aspect about this frugal innovation is that it is inherently based on a circular economy. It relies on recirculating and reusing what is already available, and nothing is considered as “waste”. Each part of it is eventually used in some or the other way to be eventually useful. This is seen most beautifully in the way we approach food in India.
Thought and design in food have been historically circular, from ecosystems to farming methods to urban planning. Circular economy essentially formed the foundation for the way we understood and practiced food and our eating habits. There was little to no food waste, simply because we consumed every last bite. Indian households have a habit of using every little morsel as they didn’t believe in the concept of wastage. This penetrated the idea of eating food as well. The idea of wasting food was never encouraged, however little it was. It invariably creates a belief of consuming and using what is already there before setting out to create anything new. Indian households essentially used every little thing to make something new. Leftover rice for instance, was never allowed to go to waste. It was left to ferment and fermented vegetables became condiments to be relished with the day old rice. If any food was left over, it would end up being composted, enabling a circular economy to function.
According to the UNEP report for 2021, which is called the UN Food Waste Index Report 2021, India wastes as much as 50 kilos of food per person per year. This essentially amounts to 68,760, 163 metric tonnes of household food waste per year.
However, it is not only household food that gets wasted, but also food produced. The Food And Agricultural Organisation estimated that 40 percent of the food produced in India is wasted every year, even before it reaches the consumer. Owing to the disintegrated food systems, poor supply chains, and a shift in market trends with the onset of e-commerce buying, has led to an upward culture of bulk-buying and wastage.
Shifting gears to a circular economy based food system, essentially means moving towards a food system that builds natural capital and allows nature to thrive. Modifying our food system, with one that is aligned with the circular economy, can potentially build a food system that ensures our food system never generates waste. However, we need to rethink the way we design and create, if we wish for our societies to become entirely circular. We need to opt for long term solutions, look to work in harmony with nature, rather than exploiting it and use what is already available.
Regenerative food production is an option that we can take a look at here. It refers to farming practices that work in amicably with the environment, by improving local biodiversity, creating healthy, stable soil and improving water quality. Regenerative food production results in a land that closely resembles natural ecosystems like forests and native grasslands, which provides a habitat for a variety of organisms. This can be implemented through practices that are altered to local environments, such as the use of diverse crop varieties and cover crops, rotational grazing and agroforestry. In a regenerative environment, every plant, animal and insect, plays an essential role to the functioning of natural cycles. Cows eat the leftover agricultural material, insects pollinate the crops and the birds ward off the pests.
As consumers, being more mindful of what we eat is a critical role that we can play in this cycle. Here are some things that we can do to make more sustainable food choices.
- A simple guideline that we can follow to ensure that we are eating sustainably, is to keep the food that our grandparents ate as a structure for planning our meals. Instead of incorporating foods into your diet that are new, use the food that is readily available to you. By eating what is available locally, we are significantly reducing carbon emissions that are caused due to transporting the food
- The Prime Minister, the Government of India sponsored the proposal for International Year of Millets 2023, which was accepted by the United Nations General Assembly. Millets consume 70 percent less water than rice and grow in half the time of wheat. Additionally, they require 40 percent less energy in processing according to the Observer Research Foundation. Millets as a grain also align with several UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to the recent press release given by the Government of India, when it spearheaded the proposal to make 2023 the Year For Millets.
- Unlike Rice, which requires five times more carbon than other grains, and the fields need to be flooded with water, millets require much less water and are pest resilient too. As consumers, we can choose to alternate between rice and other grains such as millets.
- When it comes to meal planning, you can create a diet plan that involves some local organic ingredients and some that are from off-the counter super markets, thereby creating a good balance. Reducing dairy and meat consumption over a week, while moving towards a plant-based diet can help with your individual sustainability journey.
- A simple thumb rule to remember is that the more processed a food is, the less sustainable it is. Try to consume less processed food, which is not only good for the planet, but also for you.
- Sustainability isn’t something that can be achieved overnight. It is incremental and is always aspirational. The same applies to eating sustainably too. Look to make sustainable choices that you can afford and that guarantees your nutritional requirements.
- Food packaging is another aspect that we need to account for. Opting for sustainable packaging such as reusable containers or beeswax wraps instead of single use cling film, is a great way to reduce wastage otherwise caused due to packaging.
- There’s true gold in your kitchen waste if you choose to actively compost it. You can compost it in your own home by using a khamba or choose community-based composting options
As mentioned earlier, circular design and thinking is not a novel concept in India. Switching to a circular economy is one of the best things we can do to manage climate change and build biodiversity.
By Veena Suryanarayan