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Field notes: Visit to the Azadpur fruit and vegetable wholesale market

The United
Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 12
, responsible consumption and production, aims to halve worldwide
food waste and reduce global food loss by 2030. When thinking about this goal,
many questions arise, such as:

  • How is food loss and food waste defined?
  • What metrics and methods are used to determine a
    baseline and measure progress?
  • How does food loss and waste affect food security
    and nutrition?

Considering the dynamic and evolving Indian food system, I
planned my summer of exploratory fieldwork to understand the context of food
loss in India, with a focus on fruits and vegetables (which are micronutrient
rich and tend to be more perishable). I began my work at the TARINA office in
Delhi where I arranged to visit the Azadpur sabzi
mandi
(wholesale vegetable market). An Agriculture Produce Marketing
Committee (APMC)-regulated mandi, the
Azadpur mandi is often cited as the
largest fruit and vegetable wholesale market in South Asia. So, this seemed
like a good place to start my summer investigation to observe the conditions in
which products are received and sold, and to learn about the perceptions of
food loss at the wholesale market level.

A bustling market,
rain or shine

Business at the mandi
begins before sunrise with the arrival of fruits and vegetables from all over
India plus international imports as well. Setting out early in the morning with
TARINA Research Specialist, Vanya Mehta, and her husband, we arrived just after
heavy rains had stopped. The mandi felt
like its own city within New Delhi – a fruit and vegetable city complete with
the familiar ambiance of crowds and traffic.

While most of the trucks within the market delivered
products without cold storage, I noticed at the entrance to the market a line
of refrigerated trucks, marked by the refrigeration unit at the top of the cab.
Refrigerated trucks are important in the transport of perishable food items to
maintain a cold chain from storage to wholesale market.

To further continue the cold chain, some items are brought
into cold storage warehouses, which are privately owned. These warehouses allow
for products to be stored at controlled temperatures and humidity to reduce
degradation. Additionally, fruits and vegetables produce ethylene, which
promotes ripening. Storage at low temperatures helps to reduce the rate of
ethylene production and increase the product’s shelf-life. However, cost is a
major limitation of cold storage and maintaining the overall cold-chain.

image

Figure 1. A painted
mural for a cold storage warehouse seen
from the main road outside the market entrance, with the tagline “Life” written in Hindi
(Photo credit: Jocelyn Boiteau)

In an attempt to get a sense of the scale of produce
varieties and quantities, I had browsed the daily bulletins made public on the
market website
, which provides information on products that enter the market
including the product origin, weight, type of packaging, grade, and wholesale
price range. I was particularly curious about the packaging and non-cold
storage conditions of products, both of which are important to prevent losses
from physical, physiological or pathological damage.

As we walked through the maze of market streets,
I observed different types of packaging and storage practices. For example,
more delicate products like tomatoes were often packed in plastic crates that
allow a level of protection as well as ventilation. I also saw leafy greens,
also a highly perishable item, wrapped in bundles and transported on carts. 

image

Figure 2.
Plastic crates, burlap bags, and bundles are used to transport products (Photo
credit: Jocelyn Boiteau)

Handling and storage in a fruit and vegetable
city

The impact of the rains was evident as we entered the
market. Lack of sufficient drainage led to standing water in between vendors.

image

Figure 3.
Morning rains leave standing water near produce (Photo credit: Jocelyn Boiteau)

Excess moisture is concerning because, especially when not
well ventilated, moisture can allow for bacteria and fungi to grow, promoting
decay and reducing the quality of the food product. Further, standing water
close to food products, as pictured above, demonstrates the potential for produce
to come into contact with unsanitary water. This could further increase the
rate of deterioration, leading to quantity, quality and, ultimately, economic
losses.

Discounting lower-grade products

Product grading is a process where products are rated on
quality (e.g. presence of blemishes, disease/rot, bruises, size, color, etc.).
At the wholesale market, product grade corresponds to price. Therefore,
lower-grade products are sold at lower prices. We learned that often hotels,
restaurants, and food processors will purchase lower grade vegetables and
fruits. In speaking with a lemon wholesaler, they indicated that the demand for
lower-grade products is higher during wedding seasons, as they are used to make
dishes such as chutneys, as well as juices. What is not sold goes to the
garbage where animals, such as cows, may choose to graze.

While the increased demand for lower grade products during
wedding seasons may curb losses at the wholesale market level, there have been reports
of large amounts of waste at the consumer level during weddings  ̶  resulting
in news
articles
highlighting the wastage issue and encouraging food donation.

Before reaching the market block
where tomatoes are sold, we had to turn back before the rains started again. My
visit to the mandi served to be an informative
visit into the complex realm of wholesale markets – and this is only one point
of the value chain! Next up will be interviews with farmers and village-level
market vendors to understand their experiences and perspectives on food loss at
their point in the value chain.

By Jocelyn Boiteau

Jocelyn Boiteau is a
PhD Student and a Tata-Cornell Scholar in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University.
Her research focuses on food loss from a food and nutrition security
perspective.