Why sustainable food systems need cold storage innovations

Access to efficient cold food storage is vital to sustainable food systems but climate change is causing unreliable harvests and affecting perishables. Innovations to keep food produce cool is essential if it’s to reach those who need it most, particularly in parts of the developing world

E ach year, around 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted or lost. In the developed world, food waste discussions often focus on the throw away culture of retailers and consumers who buy too much and let excess food spoil. In the developing world, however, a major reason for food loss is the inability of farmers and retailers to properly store produce. A cold chain is a temperature-controlled supply chain – a necessity to keep food edible from farm to fork.

Post-harvest food loss, where crops spoil before they can be sold and eaten, is responsible for the loss of nearly half of all fruits and vegetables harvested globally.

Food loss leads to a loss of income for farmers and contributes to malnourishment as food supply fails to meet demand. This is not a short-term issue. With the population of the world continuing to grow, it is estimated that an increase of 60% in food supply will be required by 2050. To meet this demand, we must find a way to reduce post-harvest food loss.

Climate change is a contributing factor

Globally increasing temperatures are making it harder to store food that needs cool environments to avoid ‘going off’. In India, up to 50% of all perishable food is lost because of a lack of cold storage, while in Tanzania, up to 97% of meat is never refrigerated for the same reason. Poor cold storage makes long distance transport a challenge, too, and farmers can struggle to get their goods to markets. It’s also bad news for health. As climate change drives up ambient temperatures, without cold storage there may be increased risk of development of food borne pathogens that cause disease

An added complication is that cold storage provision can risk contributing to the very issue that accelerates food loss – climate change. Cold storage is thought to contribute around 1% of the world’s CO2 emissions, which will only increase with demand. This presents a ‘catch 22’, in which climate change necessitates more cold storage, but cold storage exacerbates climate change. 

Climate change is affecting perishable produce storage from already unreliable harvests. Photo by Jeff Attaway on Flickr.

Refrigeration is limited in developing countries

A big part of limited access to cold storage in developing countries, particular in rural areas, is a lack of infrastructure. The electricity grid might not have reached poorer areas, or the grid may not be turned on or maintained because of the costs of delivering electricity to those regions. A lack of education on how to adequately store produce can contribute to food loss, as can road access that prevents quick transport to central, better equipped locations.

A sustainable, accessible solution

One solution that addresses both issues is to create cold storage options that use renewable energy sources. An innovation that does just that is ColdHubs. Founded by Nigerian entrepreneur, Nnaemeka C. Ikegwuonu, the start-up has developed a ‘plug-and-play modular assembled walk-in cold room’ that uses solar energy to power its cooling systems. This removes reliance on unreliable electricity grids. Farmers use a pay-as-you-go system to store excess produce as when they need. An added bonus is that the ColdHubs can provide employment opportunities to local people, often women, who work as hub operators. 

The hubs have been installed in markets and farms, and ColdHubs has also partnered with the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) to set up an off-grid cold storage system in a refugee market in Tanzania.

Promethean Power Systems similarly makes use of renewable power sources to offer refrigeration solutions for dairy products. Its chillers store grid electricity when it is available, and only releases it to power cooling systems when needed. It comes with solar power backup, too.

In India, where the system is most widely used, refrigerated trucks are rare because the bumpy, dusty roads often cause breakdowns, and the high price of diesel makes them cost inefficient. Chilling milk immediately upon collection means it can be transported in insulated packaging, rather than relying on refrigerated transport. Each chiller can serve 60-70 dairy farmers in a village, allowing them to maintain the quality of their milk until it is collected and transported to a central milk collecting center.

Innovation is the key to a sustainable future

Sustainable solutions that enable produce to be quickly cooled and stored, and then transported to the point of sale, will reduce food loss. This in turn means abundant harvests can be maximized and losses in climate-affected harvests mitigated, reducing malnourishment and providing farmers with better financial returns from their hard work.

Innovative solutions like ColdHubs and Promethean Power Systems are paving the way for a sustainable, effective future for food production, storage, and consumption.

The ideas presented in this article aim to inspire adaptation action – they are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Center on Adaptation.

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