Nepal’s glaring food gap


Although the undernutrition rate in Nepal has dropped dramatically in the past two decades, a quarter of its children still go to bed hungry every night.

Yet, food waste makes up 66% of garbage in Kathmandu. The gap between poverty and plenty is even more glaring during Dasain, when bingeing on masu-bhat is the norm.

This week’s Global Hunger Index 2021 by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) ranks Nepal 76th among 116 countries – better than India (101) and Pakistan (92). However, that is no comfort for thousands of Nepali families who are struggling to feed themselves due to income loss caused by the pandemic.

On the other hand, with rising living standards, Nepalis are also over-splurging, leading to an increase in food waste. Much of this is processed and packaged food, which adds to the plastic in urban garbage.

The problem has gotten so bad that cooking oil brand Siddha Baba took it upon itself to communicate the seriousness of food waste in Nepal ahead of the festival via tv and social advertorials with comedy duo Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bansa Acharya.

Doko Recyclers that manages and upcycles dry waste in Kathmandu, has seen a significant increase in consumption and wastage during the festival season. 

To be sure, the problem of food waste in Nepal is not specific to festival time. Nearly 4.6 million people are categorised as ‘food insecure’ in Nepal, and 40% of children under five are stunted. Childhood malnutrition has been made worse by pandemic-induced economic fallout.

The pandemic has also disrupted the market with tons of vegetables and fruits left to rot without proper transport during the lockdowns. Which is why despite a favourable monsoon this year, many were discouraged from planting maize and paddy, fearing more wastage.

Read also: 

IPCC report and Nepal’s food security

The pandemic of hunger, Medha Gelli

In a recent panel examining the food crisis in Nepal, environmental scientist Uttam Babu Shrestha said that up to 40% of vegetables are wasted daily during their transport and handling.

“Although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence pointing to a large degree of food waste in transit and households, there has been no comprehensive study done in Nepal examining food waste post-harvest,” added Shrestha.

A study in January of 2014 surveyed wholesalers and retailers to determine the primary cause of food waste in shops. Many of the respondents said it was because they did not have refrigeration facilities to extend the shelf life of farm produce. Others said poor handling and packaging contributed to food waste.

Food is generally to be packed in polythene bags which are significantly cheaper than crates, the expensive alternative that is the industry standard for protecting produce. The use of polythene bags, paired with tightly packed produce with minimal airflow in a vehicle on uneven roads, leads to a significant waste of produce even before it reaches market.

Food waste at home can easily be minimised, but the extent of the problem is much larger in hotels and restaurants. Nabin Bikash Maharjan of the company Blue Waste to Value has been working with clients like Hotel Yak and Yeti and Hyatt Regency and has seen first-hand the amount of food waste establishments like that generate.

“Before the pandemic, we used to get some 1.5 tons of waste from one single 5-star hotel in a day, 60% of which would be food. In large part, this waste is from banquets and events they host,” says Maharjan.

Blue Waste to Value turns the food waste into animal feed, and the rest for organic composting. Most larger hotels and restaurants in Kathmandu now have similar tie-ups with pig farms.

Actually, an average Nepali household produces much less food waste. Blue Waste to Value found that only about 20% of the waste generated in private homes is food. Even so, a study by the Solid Waste Management Technical Support Centre (SWMTSC) estimated that in Nepal, 65% of household waste is organic which means it can be turned into compost instead of being dumped in landfill sites.

Food waste is adding to Kathmandu’s growing problem of solid waste management. The capital's only landfill in Nuwakot’s Sisdole has already reached its maximum capacity, and every monsoon the rains damage the access road to the site obstructing the movement of garbage trucks.

Some 1,000 tons of solid waste is dumped at Sisdole every day, 60% of which is organic. Almost all of the waste remains unsegregated and adds to the pollution, further worsening the health of the people.

Says Pankaj Panjiyar of Doko: “Food waste at home can be largely reduced if all of us practice in-house waste segregation and composting, this in time will help with our overflowing landfill.”