Prime Minister Modi has set India the target of doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022.
But there is a significant challenge which stands in the way, namely the amount of food which is wasted after it has been harvested and before it reaches the plate, or even the shop shelves.
Estimates suggest that in India more than 40% of food is lost between the farm gate and the market. This isn’t just a waste of nutrition, which could help to alleviate hunger, but it’s also a waste of economic value. Food that is allowed to rot, rather than being sold, reduces the income of farmers, diminishes their capacity to invest in new techniques, and it reduces their incentive to grow more food.
So the question is, which systems can be put in place to enable farmers to sell more of their produce and to make a maximum return for the food they do sell? How can they sell more and waste less?
Increased cold chain infrastructure including cold stores, packing houses and so on, will play an important role. Keeping food at controlled temperatures can significantly increase shelf life, enabling more people to eat it before it degrades. In fact, major investment in cold chain infrastructure has been identified by the Indian Government as part of their seven-point strategy to improve economic opportunity for farmers.
But the real challenge in a country as large and complex as India isn’t just keeping food in giant fridges, it’s transporting it to the urban areas where there is both demand and people can afford to pay higher prices for top quality produce.
It’s no good to just keep food cold – it also needs to be kept on the move – from the people who grow it to the people who need it. That means a genuinely joined up cold chain, including refrigerated vehicles as well as buildings.
It’s also vital that this new cold chain infrastructure should be clean. Conventional diesel-powered transport refrigeration units, which keep refrigerated trucks cold, emit not only high levels of CO2 but also grossly disproportionate amounts of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. To double farmers’ income by expanding the use of conventional, highly polluting cold chain technologies would simply mitigate one problem by significantly worsening another.
India has taken up ambitious targets to make the food chain more sustainable as part of its climate change initiatives. If the government is to meet dual objectives of increasing prosperity while reducing environmental impacts, then it will have to welcome innovative approaches.
Clean cooling technologies, which can support environmentally sustainable cold chains, are being developed by entrepreneurial UK start-ups. These include Dearman’s zero-emission transport refrigeration system, solar-driven cooling for pack-houses, and even small transportable ammonia-water absorption refrigeration which can be used to transport medicine.
When joined up into a coherent yet environmentally friendly cold chain, which enables food to be harvested, packed, transported and sold at a controlled temperature, the benefits could be enormous.
People across a vast country like India could have access to better quality, cheaper and more nutritious food. Farmers can increase their incomes by selling more and potentially achieving a higher price. They in turn would have more money to invest in technology, techniques and labour. The environment would also benefit because rotting food has a negative impact upon climate change and clean-cold technologies avoid the damaging emissions which come from traditional diesel powered refrigeration.
Access to clean cold would also offer farmers the potential to branch out into food processing to make a greater return, and it may even enable them to join the e-commerce revolution, by trading their surplus crop online to reach new markets.
The challenge now is to translate global science into local solutions. We need to build on the India-UK Tech Summit to enable British technology developers and Indian organisations to work together. They can then define the technologies and the systems that work in a uniquely Indian context and build a strategy for rapid deployment.
In so doing, we could create a launching pad for high quality, high impact UK-India partnerships that would help deliver Prime Minister Modi’s vision of helping farmers and the environment at the same time.