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Waste not, want not

Food wastage does not garner as much attention as climate change does, which is quite a tragic situation, writes B Surendar.

| | Jan 12, 2016 | 3:28 pm
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We use 38% of our ice-free land for farming. The ugly truth is that we throw one-third, or 40%, of the food we produce.


Only 1.3% of the world’s water is fresh water. We use 70% of that to produce food, and then we go ahead and throw 40% away.


We grow and produce food for 10 billion people, but of the global population of seven billion, only six billion get adequate food; the remaining one billion are malnourished.


The food we throw away creates a mountain of waste every year – roughly 1.3 billion metric tonnes.


The cost of food loss and food wastage is approximately USD 2.6 trillion.


The embodied carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in food wastage alone represent 3.3 billion metric tonnes. That’s the total amount of energy that goes to produce the food we never eat, including fuel for tractors used for planting and harvesting, electricity for water pumps in the field, the power for processing and packaging facilities and more.


If food wastage were a country by itself, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the United States.

Welcome to the sordid world of food wastage, as enumerated by John Mandyck, the Chief Sustainability Officer of United Technologies Corporation (UTC) and the co-author of the book, Food Foolish (see related interview on page 32).

In November 2015, Mandyck had presented the facts to a stunned audience that had gathered for UTC’s Distinguished Lecture Series in Abu Dhabi. In early December 2015 – the 2nd and the 3rd, to be precise – he presented them at the World Cold Chain Summit in Singapore, this time to an audience of over 120 delegates from 35 countries, which included stakeholders who are specifically fighting hard to reduce, if not eliminate, food wastage and food loss around the world; the effect he had on them was no less stunning.

Over the course of two days, other speakers at the Summit, an event produced by Carrier, expressed themselves in vivid detail, the anguish in their voice and the eagerness to set things right not hard to detect.

One of them was Dr Joseph Mpagalile, from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who, as if reinforcing Mandyck’s words, spoke of how 795 million people are malnourished globally. “Sadly, the food that is produced could have helped these people, but unfortunately it is wasted, so we need to take serious steps to address this,” he said. Dr Mpagalile is the Agro-industry Officer (Logistic and Value Addition).

Among the serious steps, perhaps the most effective is a robust cold chain. As Mandyck put it: “Vegetables, fruits, milk, eggs, fish and seafood represent more than 50% of the food we waste, and all these have one thing in common – we can extend their life through refrigeration.” Added David Appel, the President of Carrier Transicold: “With cold chain technology, we can reduce food waste, we can feed more people. Today, this technology is readily available in developed countries, and we are working to make it available in developing countries.”

Just how much the positive impact of refrigeration is, was brought home by Didier Coulomb, the Director of the International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR), when he said that 23% of food losses is caused by a lack of refrigeration, versus nine per cent in developed countries. By way of sharing the effectiveness of refrigeration, he spoke of how refrigerated capacity storage was 10-fold in developed countries. Pascal Chapot of Nestle further drove home the value of refrigeration in reducing food loss when he described how in Pakistan, which is categorised as a developing country, Nestle has established a dairy-related cold chain. “In 2010, we lost 365 tonnes of milk in a single district in Pakistan,” Chapot said. “In 2013, it went down to 94 tonnes, and still there is improvement potential.”

Chapot spoke with passion about preserving milk through protecting them from thermal abuse, whereas, Judith Evans from London South Bank University spoke of how extending product life by a single day could have a profound effect on the high levels of food that are wasted. She explained how storage lives could be extended for greater than a day, if the average domestic refrigerator temperature of 7 degrees C was reduced to 4 degrees C.

Sensors are becoming cheaper, and when they become cheaper than the cardboard box they come in, we will find sensors everywhere

In a broader context, the challenge in reducing the temperature, though, is the impact on energy use. Globally speaking, the aim of facility managers working in buildings has been to increase the set point temperature to at least 24 degrees C in a bid to reduce energy consumption through air conditioning. Refrigeration, though, is a different kettle of fish, especially in the context of preservation of thermally sensitive food products; the temperature cannot be increased without attracting the ire of food safety regulators, which limits the scope for refrigeration engineers to eke out better energy efficiencies. So, a case for reducing the temperature below the required bare minimum, in order to increase the shelf life and, thus, reduce food wastage, is not likely to go down well with the engineers. The Singapore Summit reawakened the conundrum of the need for reducing food wastage and, at the same time, of ensuring the need for energy efficiency from economic and environmental perspectives.

To add to the complexity, food wastage is not merely an environmental issue but also an economic issue, with several shades of social exploitation. As a member of the audience pointed out, small farmers in some pockets of India were forced to make a distress sale, owing to lack of facilities to preserve thermally sensitive produce, a fact exploited by middlemen. “What consumers paid to the middlemen, the member of the audience said, was far more than what the middlemen paid to the farmers.”

Just for the record

The terms, ‘food wastage’ and ‘food loss’ are often interchangeably used, but they could not be more different. According to FAO, food wastage is when food moves through the supply chain and is fit for consumption but is not consumed and is discarded owing to negligence or conscious decision. Food loss, on the other hand, pertains to the food that is spilt, spoilt, lost or incurs a reduction in quality. It is the unintended result of the process or the institutional/legal framework.

The plight of the farmers, the member of the audience added, had attracted the attention of the refrigeration community in the country, and they had responded by offering low-cost intervention in the form of sea water evaporative cooling, as a result of which the farm produce was able to remain fresh for eight to 10 days and take the middlemen out of the equation.

Speaking in a different context – Perkins Cycle – Andy Pearson, the Group Engineering Director at UK-headquartered Star Refrigeration drew attention to an almost 30% wastage of energy in cold stores. Saying that he wanted to get to at least the 15% mark, he spoke of the need for focusing on building better structures. “We ought to reduce the heat load of a building through better construction,” Pearson said. “Thus, instead of having 5,000 kW of refrigeration, we can go for 2,000 kW, say.”

To improve the cold chain, Pearson called for greater government support, international cooperation, simpler systems, better monitors, better metrics, product development, operator training and system integration. “We need to make things easier to use,” he said.

“Sensors are becoming cheaper, and when they become cheaper than the cardboard box they come in, we will find sensors everywhere.”

The Summit reawakened the conundrum of the need for reducing food wastage and, at the same time, of ensuring energy efficiency

Dr Arthur Bamunuarachchi from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in Sri Lanka called for solar intervention for cold chain to be considered for stationery and mobile units. Pointing to the many countries on either side of the Equator that lack grid energy and, as a result of which, face the constant risk of spoilage of food and medicines, Dr Bamunuarachchi said solar power was a no-brainer, especially considering the fact that the countries receive plenty of sunlight.

Pearson supported the call for the use of solar energy but recommended that the efficiency of solar panels be studied and also their robustness in terms of payback period. “If designed for 10 years, you don’t want a thunderstorm to knock them off in two years’ time,” he said. “At the same time, there are already 20 countries in the world where the price of solar is cheaper than, or is at par with, conventional energy, so there is no excuse not to improve the technology.”

The role of transport refrigeration also came under the Summit’s spotlight. Mark Mitchell, the Founder and Chairman of SuperCool Asia Pacific, in Australia, characterised the truck as a critical control point for the entire journey. Food loss reduction, he said, could be achieved by dramatically improving the transport cold chain.

Mitchell described building a thermally insulated body as a common need. “Air tightness is a big aspect, but do we build an air-tight truck?” he asked. “Nah! If you stop 10 trucks in a row, only one might be okay.

He bemoaned the lack of structure in the industry when it came to following standards. “We have all the standards, but they are poorly implemented,” he said. “The truck needs to be fit-for-purpose. ATP and other standards prescribe fit-for-purpose and are based on such questions as ‘what is it going to be transporting’, ‘how many times will the doors be opened’, etc. Process, vehicle body building and refrigeration need to come together to ensure improvement in the cold chain to prevent food loss.”

(The writer is the Editor of Climate Control Middle East and the Editorial Director & Associate Publisher of CPI Industry.)

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