Clean Cold Chains

Women purchasing meat at a market

In developing markets, 40% of food can be lost post-harvest.  What does this mean?  

  • Malnutrition is the largest single contributor to disease in the world, according to the UN’s Standing Committee on Nutrition. More children die each year from malnutrition than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
  • Cold chains and food security is not just about having enough nutritious food to avoid hunger. They 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 centres of consumption.
  • Post-harvest food loss occupies a land area almost twice the size of Australia, consumes 250km3 of water per year, three times the volume of Lake Geneva; and emits 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2, making it the third biggest emitter after the US and China.
  • The World Health Organization also estimates that nearly 50% of freeze-dried and 25% of liquid vaccines are wasted each year primarily because of broken cold chains.

Read our India's Third Agricultural Revolution report (PDF)

The importance of cold chain is already well understood at the highest levels of India’s government. Agriculture is the backbone of the Indian economy, employing almost half its workforce – over 250 million people. Prime Minister Modi has set a target of doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022 and this to end India recognises that it needs cold chains that are not only effective but also zero-emission and powered by renewable energy.

At the University of Birmingham, we are working with India National and State Government (Punjab and Haryana initially) and in-country partners to advance the use of ‘clean cold’ technology in India and help meet rising demand for cooling sustainably. We plan to open “Centres of Excellence for Clean Cold Chains” to demonstrate innovative and integrated solutions for creating cooling solutions for farmers without compromising climate goals. This work combines engineering and social sciences, for an integrated approach that includes the behaviour of individuals; technical solutions; and the business models to make those solutions viable.

Clean Cold Chains – A development imperative we are working to deliver 

Supported by the University’s Institute for Global Innovation (IGI), Toby Peters, Professor in Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham, is exploring the need and strategies to address this challenge and deliver clean cold chains. Over the course of the next few months the IGI will be running a series of articles looking at the impact of cold chain through real-world stories. 

  1. Peyton Fleming: Cold into Cash: Reinventing Kenya’s rural food systems
  2. Peyton Fleming: The cold truth about Ethiopia’s nutrition gap

It is hard to overstate the importance of the cold chain – an integrated and seamless network of refrigerated and temperature controlled pack houses, distribution hubs and vehicles used to maintain the safety, quality and quantity of food, while moving it swiftly from farm gate to consumption centre.

Where cold warehouses store surplus agricultural produce to meet delayed or deferred demand, cold chains are at the heart of safety, resilience and economic advancement of society. We cannot address malnutrition nor rural poverty without cold chains extending the life of crops and connecting farmers to markets. Equally a seamless cold chain won’t just reduce post-harvest food loss, it will also allow farmers to earn more by maintaining the quality of their produce and presenting an opportunity for crops to be sold further afield.

However, while cold chains are a key contributor to food security and prosperity building, they are currently are reliant on diesel for both transport refrigeration and off-grid power. To cope with demand growth in a sustainable way, systems need to be designed to maximise final energy efficiency and harness renewable and waste energy sources.

Accelerated deployment of clean cold chains is an urgent, significant, but currently not prioritised global challenge that must be addressed to meet our commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Climate Agreement and the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

With the bulk of agricultural research investment focused on productivity not food loss and market connectivity, there is currently no cohesive and integrated strategy to either mitigate or meet cold chain needs in an economically, environmentally sustainable and resilient way. This includes harnessing waste energy sources, managing natural capital and greenhouse gases while sustaining economy growth. The key is not just focus on the technology solutions, but also the business and finance models, as well as farmer engagement.