India is the world’s largest producer of milk and the second largest producer of fruit and vegetables. Yet the country is home to more than 25% of the world’s hungry poor. More than 40% of children under five are undernourished.

What’s going wrong? According to a leading British academic, it’s the lack of a properly integrated cold chain.

When you buy groceries from the store or lunch from a restaurant, chances are you’ve not given much consideration to how the food got to you.  But for much of the food we eat to reach us in good quality, a refrigerated infrastructure is required to store and transport food from the farm to our fork.

The problem is, because the cold chain in India is patchy, $13billion of fresh food goes waste every year.

Discussing the problem, Pawanexh Kohli, Chief Advisor to the National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD), argues the solution to hunger is not just about producing more food.

‘Our capacity to feed our growing numbers is of serious and increasing concern. Science has enabled us to increase food production, but much of what we produce perishes before it can reach the people we need to feed.

The need to develop modern cold chains is, if anything, greater in India than elsewhere. Here, growing affluence has revealed the Indian preference to spend more on fresh produce rather than processed food. The only technology that can deliver farm fresh foods across our sub continental distances is cold-chain.

There has been recognition of the challenge and huge investment in the Indian cold chain. The country now has 32 million tonnes of cold store capacity, the most in the world.

But according to Toby Peters, Visiting Professor at the University of Birmingham, England, cold storage alone isn’t sufficient.

India needs to move its food quickly and efficiently from producers to urban markets. It needs thousands of new refrigerated vehicles because the nutritional and economic value of food diminishes while it sits in a warehouse – it needs to keep moving.

Why would farmers produce more food to feed a growing population when they can’t transport it to market without it spoiling? Infrastructure doesn’t just mean buildings; it means vehicles. Connectivity will enable farmers to move from being producers to business people who can sell their crop where there is greatest demand and they will receive the highest price.

One response is to invest more of the billions of dollars currently being spent on the Indian cold chain on refrigerated vehicles.  But this presents a new problem – pollution.  Diesel powered transport refrigeration units, the small separate engines that keep refrigerated trucks cold, are up to 29 times more polluting than modern diesel trucks.

‘There is a very real danger of replacing a social and economic challenge with an environmental catastrophe,’ says Professor Peters. ‘Over 600,000 people die each year in India because of air pollution. It would be madness to push thousands of additional refrigerated vehicles onto the roads if they are using highly polluting fossil fuelled technology. We don’t just need a cold chain, we need a clean cold chain.’

There could be a solution emerging from a company in the UK.  Dearman, which was founded by Professor Peters three years ago, is working on applications for a novel ‘Liquid air powered engine.’  The only by-products of this new technology are air and lots of cold, making it potentially suited to applications where both cold and power are needed, such as refrigerated trucks.

The company is looking to trial the technology on vehicles in India for the first time in 2016.  But could technology like this make a difference? Kohli thinks so. ‘NCCD is ardently pursuing the potential of clean energy from liquid air based cold chains, easily fuelled by spare industrial capacity or by recovering stranded cold from Liquefied Natural Gas re-gasification. It has become imperative that mankind fully grasps and controls clean cold energy, so that our species can continue to thrive and prosper.’

India’s cold store capacity has been updated since publication to reflect the latest figure provided by the National Center for Cold Chain Development.

The article originally featured on on Thursday 16 July 2015