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Ashok Mirchandani: At the dawn of mankind, humans were essentially hunter-gatherers. They collected berries, roots and leaves and when the supply ran out, moved to another place. Later they learned to hunt animals for food, ate as much meat as they could and then moved on in search of more food.

It was only when humans learned to grow, harvest, preserve and store food that they could settle down and become cultivators and farmers. This putting down of roots was the start of civilization, and from those first agricultural tribal settlements came the seed of civilization: villages, towns, cities and nations sprang up over the millennial.

None of this would have been possible if man did not learn how to store and preserve food. Storage of food is greatly improved by an efficient cold chain. India’s cold chain industry is still evolving; not yet fully organized and operating below capacity.With a population of 1.2 billion and agriculture supporting two-thirds of the country’s livelihood, an effective cold storage system needs to be a part of the development plan.

Food wastage due to lack of adequate cold storage facilities

Growing annually at 28 percent the total value of the cold chain industry in India is expected to reach U.S.$13 billion  by 2017 through increased investments, modernization of existing facilities and establishment of new ventures via private and government partnerships.

India is one of the largest producers of milk and the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world. India is also one of the biggest food wasting countries in the world –according to data from the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET).INR 133 billion worth of fruits and vegetables every year are wasted primarily due to a lack of cold storage facilities. Eleven percent of the world’s total vegetable production is accounted for by India alone, but India’s share in global vegetable trade is only 1.7 percent. There are about 25,000 unregistered slaughter houses in India, which generally lack chilling facilities.

India has made some progress in terms of creating refrigerated warehouses, there is still opportunity when compared with the major horticulture producers of the world in terms of storage space available per metric ton of fruits and vegetables produced. For example, the percentage of movement of fruits and vegetables through the cold chain in the U.S. is approximately 80-85 percent; movement is negligible in India.

Some of the benefits of a robust cold chain include:

Uniform supply and price stability for consumers and increased income for farmers and producers.

Seasonal products available year-round.

Improved product quality.

Extended shelf life of products, resulting in reduced over supply and transport bottlenecks.

Increased stimulus for exports, opening up new markets and new opportunities for producers.

In spite of these benefits and the obvious need for cold storage, cold storage development faces a number of challenges in India:

A fragmented agricultural supply chain, too many intermediates and inadequate connections.

Under-developed farm infrastructure.

Unreliable power supply.

Lack of uniform technology and standards.

Uneven distribution of cold storage facilities.

Lack of roads and highways connecting rural areas to cities.

Lack of sufficient refrigerated transportation.

Hesitation to increase capital investment leading to a lack of training and skill development.

Lack of awareness and sharing of best practices.

An integrated cold chain is necessary not only for a profitable retail environment, but also for inclusive growth. The obvious benefit of an integrated cold chain is a reduction in the amount of fruits and vegetables that are wasted annually. Food losses mean lost income for small farmers, higher food prices for consumers and a missed opportunity to export food to developing countries, where many people do not get the minimum required number of calories per day to achieve food security. A robust Indian cold chain could make a significant contribution to helping feed the nearly one billion hungry people in the world, including those in India.

Some of the solutions which can help overcome the lack of cold storage in India include:

Training and practices can help drive standards for storage and transportation, working with international agencies to adapt protocols and technology from overseas to Indian conditions for best cold chain practices.

Cold chain productivity can be improved by extending the use of refrigeration technology and implementing better standards for food safety.

Environmentally sustainable equipment, including those using natural refrigerants, can be used to lower the food production carbon footprint by reducing food wastage and helping to eliminate unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions from the cold chain.

Education, such as the need for specialized cold storage systems for different commodities, and how to properly maintain these facilities will have a positive effect on the quality of food and reduction of food wastage.

Do we necessarily conclude that we need to grow a lot more food to feed more people? If current conditions continue to persist, growing more food will only lead to greater food wastage.

With certain steps such as renewed discipline, awareness at all levels and with co-operation from all key industry stakeholders in the cold chain, we should be able to largely eliminate food loss in India, to the point of being able to feed a growing population with current levels of food production.

We need a stronger focus on “food efficiency,” in terms of inputs and outputs. One that is based on a model of economic and environmental sustainability, using technology to make more food resources available over a wider base of the country’s population. When we talk of “food efficiency” the cold chain is a great place to start.

(The author is Managing Director-Asia-Pacific, Carrier Transicold)

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