Technology can prevent food waste in developing countries

Up to 40% of food made in the developing world is wasted before it reaches the marketplace, according to figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). With the amount of middle class consumers called to grow to three billion by 2030, along with many that growth in developing countries, tackling this issue is no little accomplishment – particularly as growing affluence in urban areas will probably trigger a higher demand for richer diets and more complex food supply chains.

Lack of accessibility to reliable energy sources and cold chain technology are the important reasons for harvests perishing after harvest, research by Nottingham University shows (pdf). The cost of providing energy to remote, rural regions means that when storage facilities are constructed, they may however stand empty. Poor transport infrastructure causes too little instruction, as well as further losses on post-harvest practices frequently results in poor quality control and food being damaged during handling.

India suffers losses of up to GBP4.4bn in fruit and vegetables each year because of the lack of powerful technologies to keep produce cool. Despite being the world’s biggest banana company, it holds just 0.3% of the international banana market. Creation is fragmented in comparison with the large-scale commercial farms of the world’s competitions, with smallholder farmers commonly cultivating small plots with little company or technical support. Less than 4% of India’s fresh produce is transported by cold chain, compared to more than 90% in the United Kingdom.

Better cold storage, education about food handling and improved infrastructure could help to transform this situation, allowing a study by Maersk – possibly growing the commerce of banana containers from 3,000 to 190,000 annually, and helping more than 34,000 smallholder farmers across India.

The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) estimates that a quarter of food waste in developing countries could be eliminated through use of refrigeration equipment to maintain food cold during passage. Clean technology, powered by renewable energy, could allow developing countries to leapfrog the west’s mainly fossil-fuel powered cold chain system, according to Tim Fox, IMechE’s head of environment and energy.

“We’re now seeing a bottom up push for advanced, clean technologies, instead of a top down drive from western food manufacturers and retailers,” says Fox. “Leading companies should be more proactive in supporting their producers in developing countries.”

Yet, Kitinoja believes some companies may have a vested interest in keeping the status quo of high food declines as this keeps the demand for services, seeds, tools and fertilisers high. Corporate support to date has includedMaersk’s sponsorship of the World Food Preservation Center, a collaboration of 10 universities dedicated to reducing world hunger, and US food processing giant ADM’s financing of the University of Illinois’ Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss – but far more could be carried out to help producers in the developing world to cut back waste.

Small-scale technology

From small-scale technology programmers, the Powering Agriculture contest showcased a range of new tools in 2013. Among them was the Promethean Power Systems, which uses solar energy and is directed at dairy farm processors collecting from rural farmers in India. Another victor, developed by the University of Georgia, was a cooling system in Uganda powered by biogas expressed from cow manure.

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

Cryogenic energy storage (cooling and using low temperature liquids to produce sustainable energy) also has potential as a scalable, clean, cold chain technology, concludes IMechE’s Tank of Cold report. For instance, the UK’s Dearman Engine Company is pioneering a zero-emission piston engine powered by the growth of so called “liquid air.” It’s the potential to enhance the green credentials of refrigerated transport, and there are strategies to integrate it into railway wagons and mainstream commercial vehicle fleets.

The research estimates that India’s refrigerated vehicle fleet may need to grow 100-fold by 2025.

Investment remains the important impediment to scaling up such technologies. Authorities will need to remove unnecessary red tape, which puts off investors says Fox, particularly where it is holding back large-scale investment in renewable energy. Microfinance initiatives and farmer co-operatives may also help smallholders to purchase gear and benefit from new technology and infrastructure.

“Empowering smallholder farmers with new technology will need considerable, widespread, on-the-ground instruction and training,” Kitinoja concludes. “It is important to help farmers realize why they need to need these alternatives. Emphasizing the fast return on investment as well as the competitive advantage smallholder farmers bring is essential to supporting widespread adoption.”