How technology can prevent food loss in developing countries

How technology can prevent food loss in developing countries

Up to 40% of food produced in the developing world is wasted before it reaches the market, according to figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). With three billion middle class consumers expected by 2030, the majority in developing countries, tackling this challenge is no small feat, particularly as rising affluence in urban areas is likely to trigger a growing demand for richer diets and more complex supply chains.

Lack of access to cold chain technology and reliable energy sources are the major reasons for crops perishing post harvest, research by Nottingham University shows (pdf). The cost of delivering energy to remote, rural regions means that even when storage facilities are built, they may stand idle. Poor transport infrastructure causes further losses, and a lack of education on postharvest practices often results in poor quality control and food being damaged during handling.

“Without the technology, expertise and understanding necessary to keep their harvest fresh, smallholder farmers are often locked into a cycle of poverty, unable to access global markets,” says Dr Lisa Kitinoja of the Postharvest Education Foundation.

India suffers losses of up to £4.4bn in fruit and vegetables each year due to the absence of effective technologies to keep produce cool. Despite being the world’s largest banana producer, it has a 0.3% share of the global banana market. Production is fragmented compared to the large-scale commercial farms of its competitors, with multiple smallholder farmers typically cultivating small plots with little business or technical support. Less than 4% of India’s fresh produce is transported by cold chain, compared to over 90% in the UK.

Cold storage, education and improved infrastructure could help to transform this situation, according to a study by Maersk, growing the country’s trade of banana containers from 3,000 to 190,000 annually, and benefitting more than 34,000 smallholder farmers.

A lack of corporate support

The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) estimates that 25% of food waste in developing countries could be eliminated through use of refrigeration equipment to keep food cold during transit. Clean technology, powered by renewable energy, offers solutions and could allow developing countries to leapfrog our largely fossil-fuel powered cold chain system, according to Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the IMechE.

“We’re currently seeing a bottom-up push for innovative, clean technologies, rather than a top-down push from Western food producers and retailers,” says Fox. “Major companies should be more proactive in supporting their producers in developing countries.”

However, some businesses may have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of high food losses, Kitinoja believes, as this keeps the demand for fertilisers, seeds and other production inputs and distribution services high.

Corporate support to date has included Maersk’s sponsorship of the World Food Preservation Center, a collaboration of ten universities committed to reducing world hunger, and US food processing giant ADM’s funding of the University of Illinois’ Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss, but far more can be done.

Small-scale technology offers promise

In 2013, the ‘Powering Agriculture’ competition run by US Aid showcased a range of solutions from small-scale technology developers. Among them was India’s Promethean Power Systems, which used solar energy to power a milk-cooling solution for dairy processors collecting from rural farmers. Another winner, developed by the University of Georgia, was a cooling system in Uganda powered by biogas extracted from cow manure.

Elsewhere, the American-invented CoolBot thermostatic controller can be coupled with a standard home air conditioner to create low-cost cool rooms, using less energy than an equivalent commercial cooler compressor.

Cryogenic energy storage (using low temperature liquids to deliver sustainable energy and cooling) has real potential as a scalable, clean, cold chain solution, suggests the IMechE’s ‘Tank of Cold’ report. For example, the UK’s Dearman Engine Company is pioneering a zero-emission piston engine powered by the expansion of ‘liquid air’. It has the potential to significantly green refrigerated transport, with plans afoot to integrate it into mainstream commercial vehicle fleets and railway wagons.

According to a study (pdf) by the University of Birmingham, liquid air technologies could help to prevent environmental pollution as developing countries such as India look to scale up their use of cold chains. The research estimates that India’s refrigerated vehicle fleet may need to grow 100-fold by 2025.

Investing in smallholders

Investment continues to be one of the major barriers to scaling up these technologies. Governments will need to remove regulatory barriers to investment, Fox believes, particularly in terms of large-scale investment in renewable energy. Microfinance initiatives and farmer cooperatives could also help smallholders to purchase equipment and benefit from new technology and infrastructure.

“Empowering smallholder farmers with new technology will require significant, widespread on-the-ground education and training,” Kitinoja concludes. “It’s important to help farmers understand why they should want these solutions. Highlighting the rapid return on investment and the competitive edge they bring is central to encouraging widespread adoption.”

This article was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business site.