29 September 2020
Keeping Rural Harvests Cool: India Pilots Solution to Food Loss and Waste
Photo Credit: Alex Hudson on Unsplash
story highlights

The wastage and loss of food is worsening several related crises in all countries - health, economic, climate, and biodiversity.

In India, the problem could be alleviated through a more effective cold chain.

A pilot project in Tamil Nadu will test a zero-carbon packhouse with refrigerated transport, using the Producer-Owner business model – an emerging best practice in India – to boost farmer income through profit-sharing.

By Atul Bagai

Today, on the first International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, we are facing global health, economic, climate, and biodiversity crises. The wastage and loss of food is worsening these crises in all countries, both directly and indirectly. In India, the problem could be alleviated through a more effective cold chain, and in Tamil Nadu a promising pilot project is underway.

Across India an estimated 30% of food is lost or wasted, while the country also has the world’s highest number of people living in hunger. This loss greatly affects the revenues of farmers and increases the environmental degradation caused by agriculture. The impacts include land degradation, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water use, and water pollution.  

An effective cold chain would significantly aid the Government’s goal to double farmers’ income by 2022.

Ultimately, to reduce food loss, strengthen food security, and improve rural livelihoods, India must close the logistical gap between farm and fork. A lack of a reliable cold chain and logistics is responsible for up to half of post-harvest food losses in the country. A more effective cold chain would bring farmers closer to consumers, enabling them to reap fairer prices and access new markets. As a result, it would significantly aid the Government of India’s goal of doubling farmers’ income by 2022. 

Making sustainable cold chains a reality is rooted in the India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP), which analyzes different scenarios and provides policy recommendations on all aspects of cooling.

The ICAP highlights missing elements of the cold chain, which would be key to reducing food loss: ripening chambers, refrigerated transport, and rural packhouses – facilities where farmers’ produce is aggregated, pre-cooled, and packed. According to ICAP, India has only 500 rural packhouses out of a needed 125,000 or more.

Following this need, UNEP is undertaking a rural packhouse pilot in the state of Tamil Nadu in partnership with Tabreed, a major cooling utility, and Auroville Foundation. The project will test a zero-carbon packhouse powered by renewable energy, with refrigerated transport providing a route to market. This project could help reduce post-harvest losses by up to 75%, and the Producer-Owner business model – an emerging best practice in India – will boost farmer income through profit-sharing. The packhouse will also host medical cold storage facilities and a cooled community center.

To help replicate practices such as these, in India’s Haryana State, UNEP and the UNEP-led Cool Coalition are working with the UK-India Centre of Excellence on Cold Chain, led by the Haryana State Government and the Centre for Sustainable Cooling, to develop cold chain projects that cover design, financing, business incubation, training, R&D, and awareness raising. UNEP will also support the national government on efforts to empower farmers and increase their access to markets through cold chain. The Cool Coalition is also supporting other countries to develop similar, holistic plans following a methodology that draws extensively on India’s plan.

The devastating COVID-19 pandemic gives renewed impetus to reduce the scourge of food loss. On this International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste we should be clear that expanded access to secure, cold chains and the reduced food losses they enable must be an integral part of the economic recovery and strategy for a more sustainable future.

This guest article is authored by Atul Bagai, head of the UN Environment Programme in India.

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