India outsources food-waste woes By Raja Murthy MUMBAI - The Indian government is throwing open its food storage business to the private sector and foreign investors, as well as seeking Chinese expertise, at it tries to reduce the annual US$12.2 billion worth of agricultural produce allowed to rot due to inadequate government-owned facilities. Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar last week threatened criminal action against the wastrels. He targeted officials of the Food Corporation of India (FCI), the government's food stocker and distributor, for leaving grain out in the rain during the monsoon in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. The situation has not changed much since 2008, when Subodh Kant Sahai, minister for food processing, made the startling disclosure of $12 billion in losses of agricultural produce owing to the absence or shortage of post-harvesting infrastructure, such as cold storage chains, transportation and storage facilities. Pawar said he had "a dozen times" asked bureaucrats to attend to food storage shortcomings. But Pawar himself ought to take first rap for presiding over recurring disasters, from continuing farmer suicides, food prices soaring to record highs in the past two years, and now millions of tonnes of grain rotting in the rain. The 69-year-old Pawar and controversies seem to love each other. On July 1, he took over as president of the Dubai-based International Cricket Council, a high-profile role in South Asia's richest sport. Obviously, being minister for agriculture and overseeing the livelihood of more than 60% of Indians is not so demanding a job for him to rule out spare time for fun and games. While Pawar rollicks about as a global sports administrator, more than five millions tonnes of food stocks rot annually without refrigeration, without even a tin roof or a tarpaulin cover - and this when over 63% of children in India go to bed hungry. One in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, says the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), a number more than in sub-Saharan Africa. This avoidable misery continues, year after year, even though India is the world's second-largest producer of food, after China. So Pawar and company have decided to let the private sector have a go at bridging the storage gap. The Agriculture Ministry estimates a need for an additional 14 million tonnes of capacity; 12.76 million tonnes of it is being offered to entrepreneurs. They can create storage facilities and rent them to the government. Under the scheme, the FCI will guarantee the rental fee for the first seven years. India also plans to increase foreign direct investment (FDI) in food retailing to reduce wastage. Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion Secretary R P Singh told media that the existing retailing structure was not doing enough to reduce grain wastage. The food-processing industry is also getting a boost. An astonishingly low 2% of fruit and vegetable production is processed annually in India, compared with 30% in Thailand, 70% in Brazil, 78% in the Philippines and 80% in Malaysia. Simultaneously, China is coming to help. The country has 150 million tonnes of agricultural storage capacity, compared with India's 60 million tonnes. Pawar's deputy, Professor K V Thomas, minister of state for agriculture, visited China in June, inspected modern grain storage facilities at Dalian port, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and met his counterpart, Niu Dun, the Chinese vice minister of agriculture. The duo agreed to have Chinese technical experts visit India in October and November with a view to increasing storage facilities - opening a promising new front in the complex hot and cold relationship between the two Asian giants. India can do with whatever help it can get in the storage business, considering it loses a quarter of its agricultural produce between the farmer's cart and the diner's plate. Nearly 7% of grain and over 30% of fruit and vegetables is estimated to go waste each year without post-harvest facilities. The FCI ranks among three foremost culprits for the recurring food-wastage fiasco. The Department of Agriculture and Cooperation and the National Cooperative Development Corporation have also failed to meet half the storage target set by government planners in the 11th Five Year Plan. For a trillion-dollar economy to have neglected such a fundamental need as agricultural storage facilities seems remarkable, even for a country with dramatic contrasts and contradictions such as India. The problem appears to be heading backwards, going by FCI statistics. FCI had a covered storage facility for 26.59 million tonnes in 2003, and 25.86 million tones in April 2010, even as food grain production nationwide increased to 228 million tonnes in 2009 from 174.19 million tonnes in 2003. India has established food storage-related institutions, but without enough authority and scope. The Grain Storage Research and Training Center was set up at Hapur, Uttar Pradesh, in 1958, as a research and development and training center. It is now called the Indian Grain Storage Management and Research Institute (IGMRI). "Our organization focuses more on research of upgrading packing materials such as polypropylene bags, pesticides and not storage infrastructure," IGMRI director Subhash Gupta told Asia Times Online from Hapur. IGMRI is part of the storage and research division, Department of Food and Public Distribution, and another chapter in the story of missing state-of-the-art storage facilities. China, in contrast, runs the Beijing-based State Administration of Grain, the top agency coordinating all food grain matters - from purchase, storage and quality control to research and development. It employs about 200,000 workers to operate high-tech storage tools, including power ventilation appliances, recycling fumigation devices and computer-controlled temperature measuring systems. Time is running out. With the size of India's urban food market estimated at $74 billion, increasing demand will complicate the battle against food inflation that is already hovering at a 10-year high. Attacking the $12 billion foodstuff loss would be a fruitful start, more so as India's agricultural output is expected to double in the next decade.