development equality poverty

How solar fridges fight poverty as well as food waste

As much as a third of all the world’s food is lost or wasted, according to the World Bank. That represents a waste of land and water, energy, money and human effort. And there are climate emissions too: if food waste were a country, it would come third in the global rankings of major emitters, right after China and the US.

As I’ve described before, there’s a difference between food waste and food loss. The former is uneaten food thrown away deliberately at the household or retail level. Food loss refers to the accidental spoiling of food through poor storage or transport. As you might expect, there’s a divide here between high and low income countries. In North America 61% of wasted food is by consumers, and 23% in production and handling. That’s reversed in India, where 69% is lost in production and just 13% of overall food waste is from consumers.

Those losses come from lack of storage facilities, pests or extreme weather, or poor transport and shipping infrastructure, and it really adds up. India loses 21 million tonnes of wheat every year. 40% of all fruits and vegetables grown are lost between the farm and the plate. In a country where one in five children show signs of stunted growth from malnutrition, that’s a major problem.

Of course, much of India is hot and humid, and food spoils quickly. Crops need to be transported to market and sold quickly after harvesting, and often without appropriate packing or quality roads.

One good solution is refrigeration, which delays the decay of food crops and keeps things fresh. But fridges need a reliable source of electricity, and small rural farms may not have adequate power. They can be expensive to buy and to run. Larger farms can afford to invest, while poorer smallholders can’t, even though they are much more vulnerable.

This perpetuates poverty, and there’s a secondary inequality that makes it worse. The markets are often saturated as farmers all rush their harvests in at the same time. There’s a glut and the price is pushed down. Not all of it will sell, resulting in further losses. Again, those who can afford refrigeration benefit. They can hold back their harvest until the rush is over, and command better prices. The poorest farmers end up earning less than the richer farmers for exactly the same produce.

Affordable cold storage could have major benefits then, reducing food losses and poverty and inequality at the same time. That’s what Indian company EcoZen have been working on. They make insulated refrigerated containers with solar panels on the roof. Their EcoFrost units function off grid, bringing cold storage to more remote areas. Since they can be moved around on the back of a lorry, they can serve many farms or villages over the course of a year. That makes them cheaper, because farmers can invest together, or rent out the unit when they’re not using it.

 

Affordable low carbon cold storage is a good example of an intervention that addresses inequality and sustainability at the same time, which is why I made it a case study in the Green Economy Coalition report How fair can be green. You can download that here for more examples.

4 comments

  1. This is a great post. In fact, the government has released an Agriculture Export Policy in 2018, where one of the key components being addressed is the cold storage facilities and efficient transportation of perishables. The numbers you have shared for food losses is shocking; hopefully the policy initiatives at the national level will improve infrastructure.

    A nuance in the market that you did not consider in this post is how large farmers/middlemen buy perishables (not just grow their own) from small farmers and keep it in their cold storages for sale at a later date. Often, this is perpetuated because large farmers and middlemen are also money lenders. Often, if farmers don’t have money to repay the debt, they are forced to do it in kind, further reducing their negotiation powers.

    Social strata also plays a role in owning infrastructure, as it is a sign of superior status.

  2. Two observations:
    Solar powered refrigeration offers perfect synergy: when the weather is hot and sunny you get maximum power and need maximum refrigeration – at night or when it is cooler, so long as the refrigeration unit is well insulated, running out of power will be less of a problem. This also means expensive (in cost and on the environment) batteries can be minimised or done away with altogether.
    There is though another way of dealing with both gluts and transportation issues, and that is the traditional art of preserving, something we seem to have all but forgotten in richer countries, except for specific products we do not even think of as being preserved such as turning milk into cheese and barley into beer or whisky – in both cases these would have been traditionally ways of using up surplus rather than separate markets which end up destructively distorting production, causing land, people and animal exploitation. It just so happens that before reading this post I made several jars of apple butter, using apple purée from last year’s harvest that had been stored in our very small freezer and forgotten about, since I was in the middle of building a new kitchen last autumn. Most people I know have never heard of apple butter, but go mad for it once they have tasted it. I also have jars of sauerkraut from last winter’s cabbage and kimchi from last spring’s produce. Furthermore, preserving done on the farm or cooperatively in farming communities both simplifies transportation and provides massive added value for the farmers.

    1. You’re right, and there are new kinds of fridges coming onto the market that don’t need any power overnight.

      Good point about preserving. I agree that it is a lost household art, but as a food culture we make good use of it – the supermarket is full of food in tins, or pickles or in the freezer section. All of those were developed to get us through the seasons, though there are of course simpler ways to do things at home.

      Thanks for the reminder about apple butter, which I’ve had before but forgotten about. We have a lot of apples at the moment off our two trees, and I might give that a try!

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