Nipping Food Wastage in the Bud: The Role of the Cold Chain

Nothing is more essentially Indian than the image of fresh produce in our ‘Subzi Mandis’ or vegetable markets. It is an image charged with vitality and energy; one that highlights both human enterprise and the bountiful ways of our planet.

The spread in our local ‘Mandis’ does reflect the agricultural landscape in the country, to a large extent. After all, India is now among the world’s largest producers of horticultural products, according to several estimates. However, underlying this positive image is a less cheery one – of rot and waste. The grim reality is that much of our horticultural output has to be discarded soon after it is harvested due to the absence of temperature-controlled infrastructure to prolong its shelf life.

According to estimates by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 40 per cent of India’s fresh fruit and vegetables – worth an annual $8.3bn or so – perish before reaching consumers. (need citation)

This is not a situation unique to India. Food wastage is a global phenomenon that occurs in both developing and developed countries. Industry watchers estimate that a third of the food we produce around the world is wasted annually.

Ashok Mirchandani, Managing Director, Asia Pacific at Carrier Transicold (a brand of United Technologies that develops air conditioning and refrigeration solutions) says that this third is almost equally divided between the developed and developing countries. “In developed countries,” he says, “it is wasted at the consumer end – in shops and restaurants. It even gets to tables but then does not get consumed. The other half (of food wastage) – and that’s what affects us in India – is closer to the production end.”

‘Food Foolish”, an eye opening book co-authored by John Mandyck, Chief Sustainability Officer for Carrier Transicold’s parent company, United Technologies Corp., explores the complex relationship between global food wastage and hunger, describes the problem in a more graphic way:

“Imagine purchasing three bags of groceries. While driving back home, toss half of one bag onto the road. That represents the loss that occurs during harvest, processing and distribution. Arrive home and immediately toss the other half of the bag into the trash. That’s the waste experienced by retailers and consumers. Buy three, get two; Welcome to our food system.”

Food wastage of this scale has clear implications for the environment and climate change. Since energy is expended in producing food that is eventually dissipated out, this is a problem that the global community has to take seriously. In the developing world where achieving food security is still an ongoing goal for many countries, there is a greater push to examine the factors that contribute to this wastage. The paradox for India and other developing countries is that, while large quantities of food are thrown away on a daily basis, there are still many people and entire communities that are grappling with hunger and a lack of nourishment.

Mirchandani also points out that the inefficiencies inherent in the food system trickle down to hit the farmer who is unable to command a fair price for his produce.

Developing a robust, interconnected and effective cold chain is integral to the solution even if it is not the only aspect we need to work on. The typical cold chain infrastructure consists of a fleet of refrigerated trucks (or reefers) and storage units, along with a variety of related activities involving packing, grading and other forms of food processing designed to extend the shelf life of perishables.

The global cold chain market was valued at $97,835 million in 2013 and is expected to hit $233,476 by 2019. Not surprisingly, the industry is still at a nascent stage in India. Mirchandani notes that of the 104 million tons of perishables produced on an annual basis, only 4 million goes through some form of cold storage. Of the total number of cold storage facilities in the country, about 60 per cent are located in just four states: Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal and Punjab.
There are several reasons for the lag in this area – inadequate infrastructure, cost and an unpredictable power scenario being the leading ones. Due to the lack of cold storage facilities near production points, produce is sold in marketplaces located close to where crops are harvested. Rural areas on the fringes of the electricity grid cannot be assured of reliable power supply that is needed to operate cold storage units. Most importantly, in a country where produce is not viewed as a premium commodity, cost constraints can hamper the development of full-fledged cold chain systems to support food production.

Pankaj Mehta, Director at Carrier Transicold India, believes that the cold chain infrastructure in India is well established in segments where there is a real need for these systems – primarily for handling perishables such as meat and dairy.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, Mehta says, “There really is no entry point for these products to enter the cold chain”. And since consumers largely seek fresh produce at low prices, there is also no urgency to remedy this situation through capacity building.
Currently, produce is largely offloaded in nearby marketplaces, rather than being transported to far-flung areas. This can result in a glut of certain produce in those local markets and a corresponding shortage of the same items in other places. Unpredictable price fluctuations that hurt both the consumer and producer are common under this scenario.
Incorporating key elements of the cold chain in the food production ecosystem can help to minimize the impact of seasonality and keep prices stable during the course of the year. Producers can then be assured of a better price for their crops while consumers will have more options when it comes to the food they buy. At a broader level, minimizing food wastage will allow public and private entities greater elbow room in developing solutions to tackle our food security challenges.
In recognition of this, the government is working on solutions that will introduce much needed cold chain capacity at critical points of the ‘farm to fork’ journey.
One of these initiatives involves food parks – centralized processing centers proposed for many states where produce can be brought and prepared for transportation to other parts of the country. Various processing activities, including sorting, canning, freezing and packaging can be performed here to ensure that the fruits and vegetables are trip ready. There is also potential for branding some of the produce before it leaves the center. As of date, the Government has sanctioned the development of forty-two fully outfitted mega food parks.
Beyond this, Mehta and other industry experts point out the need for improved capacity utilization to keep costs down. “Even in developed countries, fruits and vegetables will never be able to solely bear the cost of the infrastructure involved”. On the other hand, Mehta says, a fleet of reefers transporting fruits on the way in can pay for themselves better if they are also able to move ice cream or other perishables on the return trip.
With increased government focus in this area, there are several public-private initiatives cropping up to improve efficiencies, remove infrastructure bottlenecks and clear the way for a smooth and cost effective cold chain network that connects different parts of the country.
At the consumer end, modern retail format stores equipped with efficient cold storage units represent another critical element of this infrastructure. “Whether through domestic investment or FDI, we need more facilities like these”, Mirchandani says, adding that the Government has introduced some subsidies for setting up cold storage and for buying trucks.
At a mass market level, coolants – the underlying component in cold storage – are showing up in unusual and innovative ways. The Patna-based Kart Corporation manufactures motorized AC vegetable vending carts. According to the company’s website, the carts keep produce cool through the use of special chemicals placed in charged Phase Change Material (PCM) panels.
Innovations such as these may help stem the food wastage crisis in the country and cut down the mountains of rotting produce in our ‘Mandis’. And as the larger ecosystem of food centers, trucks and cold storage units scales and expands, India will be in a better position to improve the general population’s access to quality food.
Mirchandani points out that as human society expands, we have to worry about food supply as much as we have to worry about water and the environment.
“Refrigerated trucks and the cold chain are not the answer to everything”, he says, “but they are one part of a comprehensive solution in this area. If you can handle food right, you can make sure more of it gets to the market and ultimately, onto the plate of the consumer”.