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.
- Feature image by Ravi Sharma