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Published on: Feb. 14, 2020, 11:57 p.m.
Food waste and loss are a global phenomenon
  • Maximum food wastage occurs at the consumer level Source: Wikipedia

By Shubhashis Dey. The author is Program Manager, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation

Having worked in the climate change and development sector for over a decade-and-a-half, I am often amazed by the contrast between popular beliefs, stakeholder priorities and ground realities. For instance, public perception is often that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change are a function of economic growth.

But GHG emissions can also be a function of economic loss. For instance, wastage and loss of food produce is responsible for nearly 8 per cent of the global anthropogenic GHG emissions (UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 2011). Approximately 19 per cent of GHG emissions in India are caused due to food wastage alone. This works out to about Rs92,000 crore worth of major agricultural produce (at 2014 wholesale prices) lost in India every year (Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology, 2016). The actual economic loss would be compounded if we consider retail price, hunger, farmer distress and farm loan waivers.

Food waste and loss are a global phenomenon. In developed economies, the maximum food wastage occurs at the consumer level, but in developing economies, food produce is lost before it even reaches the consumers. It is estimated that better handling, storage and processing of food produce can feed around 11 per cent of the global population.

Operation green:

Here is another staggering fact – despite India producing sufficient food, millions go hungry every year. On an average, India requires 225-230 million tonnes of food per year (A. Sarkar et al). In 2013-2014, India produced 263 million tonnes of food. This paradox is today receiving an increasing amount of attention from various stakeholders.

While many factors contribute to post-harvest losses in India, one of the major causes is the lack of effective cold chains. A cold-chain is an integrated network of refrigerated and temperature-controlled pack houses, distribution hubs and freight used to maintain the safety and quality of food. Cold-chains reduce post-harvest food loss, address issues like food and nutritional security and increase farm income by linking farmers to end-consumers. But many factors have restricted the development of effective cold-chains in India such as inadequate policies, supply chain barriers, cartelisation and profiteering.

In a bid to address this challenge, in 2016, the government of India launched ‘Operation Green’ with the goal of reducing food loss and doubling farmers’ income by supporting agri-logistics, food processing units and farmer producer organisations. A key measure under Operation Green is to develop and improve cold-chains in India.

Because of the impetus provided by Operation Green, cold-chains are expected to proliferate rapidly in the next few years. However, it is necessary to get the policies and their implementation right. We have already ended up creating many large, fragmented and inefficient cold storages, which often run on diesel power due to the unavailability of reliable electricity supply. With 60 per cent of cold storages located in four states i.e. Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Gujarat and Punjab, a vast majority of the cold storage is used only for a single commodity – potato (Centre for Public Policy Research). Thus, our existing cold storage infrastructure is unable to meet the huge demand supply gap for other farm produce.

There are other challenges to address. The mandis created under the Agriculture Produce Market Committee (AMPC) Act are typically controlled by a few traders and restrict small farmers to trade freely. Although the sector is open for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), due to opposition from small retailers and traders, the political economy of the country discourages large agri-sector investment and organised retailing. Existing licensing systems and regulated markets like APMCs discourage the organised private sector from investing in cold-chains. This is one of the reasons why our food processing industry has routinely under-achieved its potential.

The lack of effective food chains has another serious impact – on our health. Often small farmers rely on cheap pesticides to increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables, because they do not have the means to invest in cold-chain or access cold storages. Pesticide use has also increased due to government subsidies and the promotional strategies by pesticide companies, which end up working against the development of cold storages.

When it comes down to it, better and cleaner cold chains can help arrest post-harvest food loss in India. The move away from diesel-based fuel chains can reduce GHG emissions and usher in more sustainable development.  But in order to do this, a disruptive paradigm shift is required. Till now, the concept of clean cold-chains has been an alien one and cold storage is considered as a standalone infrastructure rather than a key component of the agri-supply chain. Today, the new ‘clean cold-chains’ are intended to transport food produce from the farm gate to end consumers sustainably and relay demand from consumers to the farm gate efficiently that too with a minimal environmental impact.

Overcoming barriers:

To encourage an open and competitive market system, the 2018-19 Union Budget proposed the development of 22,000 Gramin Agricultural Markets (GrAM) outside the ambit of existing apmcs. Every GrAM should have pack houses with pre-cooling facilities for fresh produce. Pre-emptive steps are necessary so that GrAMs become an effective market mechanism to restrict carteling and profiteering, promote clean cold-chain development and enable last mile delivery.

Getting the private sector on board with the correct incentives can bolster the development of infrastructure, logistics and market systems, while restricting profiteering. The private sector will bring in efficiency and create the necessary links between farmers, consumers and the food processing industry. The government must do its bit to provide allied infrastructure like roads, ports, rail and air. Incidentally, the BJP and Congress in their 2019 election manifestos have promised schemes and programmes to overcome the existing policy and institutional barriers to cold-chain development in India.

We must explore new ideas like creating agri-IT infrastructure which enables market, data-driven harvesting of produce to avoid unnecessary storage. We must also encourage the private sector to provide ‘cooling as a service’, rather than the conventional approach of selling cooling equipment to farmers and traders. An alternative approach could be one where cooling requirements are delivered efficiently by a third party. 

Another option is to develop a series of regional or state-level clean cold-chain ‘Living Labs’ and ‘Innovation Centres’ to test and validate solutions. While designing cooling infrastructure, engineers should start thinking ‘Thermally First’. Locally or easily available thermal energy (like biomass, solar, phase change materials, free cooling) options should be optimally explored before introducing electric refrigeration systems. Higher system efficiency and choice of refrigerants will also help mitigate GHG emissions from this sector.

Despite its self-sufficiency in food availability, India is unable to feed its vast growing population adequately. To advance food security, the opportunity lies in making cold-chains cleaner in order to honour the needs of farmers as well as the demand of consumers with a minimum impact on the environment.


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