India Trip

Agriculture is the backbone of the Indian economy, and has been transformed since independence in 1947. The green revolution staved off famine by raising crop yields dramatically, and the white revolution – “Operation Flood” - turned India into the world's largest milk producer. Yet, for all of the increase in production, food losses have also increased, and the vast majority of farmers remain trapped in the cycle of poverty.  The success and the problems are closely connected.

To reach its full potential, Indian agriculture urgently needs a third revolution: the blue, or cool, revolution to build a sustainable cold chain connecting farms to cities, and allow small farmers to develop entrepreneurial agri-businesses serving the growing urban middle class. This new clean cold chain will conserve huge amounts of food that currently go to waste, leapfrog the old polluting technologies that dominate in the developed countries, and help achieve Prime Minister Modi’s target of doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022.

It is hard to overstate the importance of cold chain in delivering Prime Minister Modi’s target. The IIR has estimated that if developing countries had the same level of refrigeration equipment as the developed, they would save 200 million tons of food, or around 14% of their food supply.  In India, the National Centre for Cold-chain Development (NCCD) calculates the country has less than 15% of the refrigerated trucks it needs, and less than 1% of the pack-houses, the vital first stage of the cold chain that preconditions the produce for onward transport.

This lack of infrastructure means scarcely 4% of India’s food is moved through the cold chain, compared to 70% in the UK. As a result, for some crops, as much as 40% of the harvest is estimated to be lost between farm and market. This reduces farmers’ income, which in turn limits their capacity to invest, and their incentive to grow more food. The missing link is a seamless ‘cold chain’ in the form of modern pack houses, distribution hubs, and refrigerated transport to maintain the safety, quality and quantity of food while moving it swiftly from farm gate to consumer.

India trip 1

Haryana have established urban farmers markets which sell directly to the consumer, capturing more of the produce value.

Cold chains don’t just reduce post-harvest food loss, but also allow farmers to earn more by maintaining the quality of their produce and selling it further afield - especially when this means they can reach more distant cities, and major centers of consumption.The same lettuce, sold for 10 rupees at the farm gate in Haryana state, can fetch 100 rupees in downtown Delhi – but only if the farmer can get it there in the same condition as one imported by air-freight from a highly developed global agri-business and cold chain.

What’s more, the market connectivity, afforded by a cold chain, enables and incentivises farmers to raise their output because they will earn more from what they produce; whereas its absence means that any effort to increase yield will also cause higher wastage - so dousing the incentive.

India is the world’s fastest growing economy, and its urban middle class is expanding fast. But with inadequate cold chains, India is losing this opportunity to foreigners. During April-September 2015, India's apple imports stood at $154 million, while domestic production has declined by as much as 25% in under a year.

Cold chains also allow the farmer to expand into higher value, but perishable horticultural crops and into animal husbandry, rather than remain tied to the low margin staples. And the really entrepreneurial farmer or farming co-operative can move right up the value chain by developing processing and food products. In the UK, many farmers have become independent national food brands with their own ice-creams and dairy products, fresh juices and even chilled and frozen ready-meals. 

However, all of this depends on cold. Without it, the producer will probably deliver products that do not meet the expectations of target consumers – and their order book will be short-lived. “The epitaph of brands”, says Abraham Koshy, Professor of Marketing at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, “is written in false and exaggerated claims”.

Access to cold and cold chains can turn subsistence farming into agri-businesses. It is no wonder that the Indian government has identified investment in cold chain logistics, which mitigates post-harvest losses, and allows food to be moved quickly to distant markets, as a vital component in its 7-point farm income strategy. Reduction in post-harvest food waste also conserves key resources such as water, labor, land and fertilizer. It reduces reliance on imported produce, often transported by air freight, and improves health through improved food quality and safety.

A recent pilot by Carrier UTC, and overseen by NCCD, demonstrated that a cold chain carrying kinnow (a low value citrus fruit) from Punjab to Bangalore reduced food waste by 75% and CO2 emissions by 16%, while increasing profits tenfold. As Pawanexh Kolhli of NCCD explains “The world needs to move away from traditional measures of productivity towards measuring gainful productivity.  This means keeping mindful of delivery throughputs and resource or energy inputs in the food supply chain.”

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As part of its climate change initiatives, India has also set ambitious targets to make agriculture, and the food supply more sustainable – which is in any case what many consumers want. It is, therefore, vital that any new cold chain infrastructure should be clean. Conventional diesel-powered cooling of transport refrigeration units and pack-houses, for example, emits not only CO2 but also high levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter (PM). To double farmers’ income by expanding the use of conventional, highly polluting cold chain technologies, would simply mitigate one problem by significantly worsening another.

The answer then is to identify cold chain technologies that are economic, efficient and sustainable, and to accelerate their deployment. This will produce an environmentally sustainable system that minimises loss, raises farmers’ incomes, and underpins wider economic growth.

But these solutions cannot be imposed from outside or above. Only by engaging with local communities, and understanding their needs and aspirations can we come up with solutions that are resilient and long-lasting. One major obstacle is that most farmers are too small to invest in new technologies individually, with the majority farming less than two acres. They have scant financial resources and little-to-no flexibility about when and where they sell their crops.

Without access to cold chain they are obliged to accept whatever price the aggregator offers at harvest time, when their crop is likely to be facing a local glut and the price is low. But at the same time, within the country, there are demand opportunities that go unmet.

And cold storage on its own is not the answer. As just one example, in India, small farmers traditionally arrange their daughters’ weddings for the month following harvest, when they have sold their crop. While access to cold storage might enable them to delay sale to a time when they could fetch a higher price, they do not have the financial freedom to wait two months; they need the money today. It would be far better if they could sell into a complete cold chain, which would offer both exposure to the higher prices of distant markets and immediate payment. This would prevent the hoarding of produce for a later transaction, and simultaneously satisfy the needs of the both the farmer and society. The cold chain should be designed to maximise the speed of delivery to the urban markets – although with buffers built in to the system - rather than being driven by warehousing alone.

India trip 2

Agriculture employs almost half the workforce in India, over 250 million people.

India has already shown that the poverty and powerlessness of individual farmers can be overcome through collective action. The Amul Dairy co-operative was founded in the 1940s with just two villages pooling 247 litres of milk, but eventually became the driving force of the ‘white revolution’.  Today, it combines 15 million milk producers in an organisation that controls processing and marketing, and has helped turn India into the world’s largest milk producer.  This concept of collaborative farming could be extended and adapted to bring clean cold chain to perishable produce - allowing farmers to join forces to benefit from new technology, centralised services and new business models.

To meet the challenge, we must continue to develop cold technologies that use cleaner sources of energy across all stages of the cold chain, and across the full gamut of commodities; from apples to peas to meat, and from potatoes to strawberries to fish. This will mean working with local communities to discover what services they need to support a sustainable, prosperous, and inclusive farming community connected to the optimum markets. Only then can we understand what needs to change in infrastructure, business, and policy to provide those services in the most resource efficient way. 

For all these reasons, it is not enough simply to demonstrate that each of the new clean cold technologies works individually. India is sometimes known as a graveyard of pilot projects. Instead we should aim to catapult centres’ for testing, evaluating and demonstrating the cold chain as a chain connecting farm to consumption centre, rather than as a series of isolated facilities. They must be technology neutral; regionally, socially and culturally inclusive, and test not only technologies but also business models.  They must also be designed to expand into commercial deployment where successful. This ‘living lab’ approach has a far greater chance of success, and could be co-funded by India and donor countries along the lines of the Indo-Israeli Centre of Excellence for Vegetables in Haryana. Its results could then be replicated in other developing countries – with potential export opportunities for both India and Britain.

To get these front-line demonstration projects right, we must start by listening to the farmer on his or her two-acre farm, so that we have a better chance of ensuring fit-for-purpose clean cold technologies, knowledge transfer, business rewiring and channel growth, all of which will help sustainably connect small farmers with the opportunity offered by a fast growing urban middle class market. If so, we could deliver a true legacy cool or blue revolution to rank alongside the green and white revolutions.

- Toby Peters, Visiting Professor in Power and Cold Economy, University of Birmingham.

  • The University of Birmingham is a world-leader in clean cold expertise. Our scientists are working alongside experts around the globe to tackle the cooling challenge. 
  • Clean Cold and the Global Goals, launched by the Birmingham Energy Institute is a major research project, which investigates how clean cold could help to achieve almost all of the United Nations’ (UN) Global Goals. The 17 ‘Global Goals’ commit the international community to put the world to rights by 2030 - abolishing poverty and hunger; providing good healthcare and education; raising people’s quality of life; and cleaning up the environment, whilst promoting economic growth.
  • In February 2017, the Birmingham Energy Institute, supported by the UK’s Science and Innovation team, Department for International Trade, and India’s National Centre for Cold Chain Development, hosted a four-day workshop and study tour in India. The event brought together government, industry, technology, and academic experts from India and the UK to look at how ‘clean-cold’ technology can help farmers get more food to market whilst minimising their carbon footprint.