A cool route to addressing global challenges

2017-01-17T16:27:54+00:00 October 6th, 2016|Viewpoints|

As experts gather in London to debate game-changing technologies in agriculture, Toby Peters suggests that clean cold is one of the keys to food security, climate and health and needs to play a central role in tomorrow’s agriculture.

World agriculture faces a daunting array of apparently contradictory challenges. The sector must massively increase output by the middle of the century to reduce hunger and satisfy the demand of a global population that is predicted to swell to over 9 billion. At the same time farmers need to slash carbon emissions, which currently account for 30% of the global total, if countries have a hope of complying with their Paris Climate Change Agreement obligations.

Until now, governments and companies alike have largely focussed upon increasing the amount of food we grow, increasing intensity, boosting yields and investing in bio-technology. However, one approach that would help to achieve all goals simultaneously is simply to reduce the amount of food that is wasted.

The statistics are shocking. According to estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 800 million people live in hunger. At the same time, up to a third of all the food produced worldwide, more than a billion tonnes, is wasted every year. One study has indicated that if we could only halve food wastage, then we could feed another 1 billion people without needing to plant any more crops, catch any more fish or feed any more animals.

“The amount of food wasted and lost globally is shameful”, says World Bank president Jim Yong Kim. “Millions of people around the world go to bed hungry every night, and yet millions of tons of food end up in trash cans or spoiled on the way to market. We have to tackle this problem in every country in order to improve food security and to end poverty.”

Food wastage also has enormous implications for the sustainability of agriculture and its carbon footprint. The FAO estimates that to grow the same amount of food that we currently waste would require a land area the size of Mexico; it would consume 250 km3 of water per year, which is three times the volume of Lake Geneva; and it would account for 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions, making it the third largest carbon emitter after the US and China.

So any effort to reduce food wastage will not only help to reduce hunger but also improve resource efficiency and help to tackle climate change.

Food is wasted at all stages of the supply chain, from the farm gate to the back of our fridge. The balance of these losses varies by crop and region, but across the world the greatest proportion of food is lost between farm and retailer.

Addressing this challenge will require a multi faceted approach. Like all thorny issues there can be no quick fix.  However, in order to ensure that more of the food we grow gets to be eaten, keeping it cool from the point where it is harvested to the shops can play an enormously beneficial role. In the most simplistic sense this means introducing more refrigeration to the way we harvest, store, transport and retail food in order to extend shelf life.

However, conventional ‘cold chains’ of refrigerated warehouses and vehicles can be carbon intensive, highly polluting and damaging to human health. The task of developing and deploying innovative clean cooling technologies is therefore absolutely central to the future of civilisation.

Two thirds of the world’s food wastage happens in Asia and Africa, and these are also the regions where cold chain capacity is often rudimentary or non-existent. The International Institute of Refrigeration has estimated that if developing countries had same level of cold chain as developed nations, they could save 200 million tonnes of perishable food each year.

Reducing wastage by building cold chains in developing countries would not only increase the food supply, but also help tackle poverty. Food prices can be reduced for consumers, because if markets are better supplied, prices fall, and farmers’ incomes increase, because more of what they produce can be sold rather than discarded.

In fact, India’s National Centre for Cold-chain Development (NCCD) has concluded that developing temperature controlled logistics in rural areas will be a critical factor in achieving the government’s target of doubling farmers’ income over the next five years.  While various efforts are underway to incrementally reduce farmers’ costs, a transformative effect is expected to come from improving transport from farm-to-consumer. The NCCD points out that cold chains give farmers access to distant and potentially higher value markets, so increasing the incentives to raise production.

Demand for cold chain services is already beginning to surge in countries such as China and India as they become wealthier and more urbanised. However, emerging cold chains still rely on conventional, and all to often highly polluting, diesel-powered transport refrigeration units (TRUs). These TRUs are not only carbon intensive, but also emit grossly disproportionate amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM), the toxic pollutants that cause 3.7 million deaths worldwide each year. If cold chains continue to be built using conventional technologies, and demand continues to boom as predicted, these countries will simply swap one set of problems for another.

New clean cooling technologies are, however, now being commercialised, which could resolve this dilemma. Dearman’s transport refrigeration system for example, which is powered by liquid air, would eliminate NOx and PM immediately and as well as significantly reduce emissions of CO2.

This means it is finally possible to secure all the benefits of reducing food waste – for food security, emissions and wider sustainability – without the downside.  The challenge is now to deploy the new technologies urgently to prevent developing countries from adopting the old dirty technologies by default – locking in emissions for years to come.