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What cold chain needs to look like to feed 10 billion?

Dr Toby Peters, Professor in Cold Economy, University of Birmingham, in conversation with Hannah Jo Uy of Climate Control Middle East, reflects on existential questions surrounding the future of cold chain

| | Mar 24, 2020 | 9:28 am
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Toby Peters

According to the World Research Institute (WRI), we need to produce 56% more food to feed a global population of 10 billion people by 2050, says Professor Toby Peters, Professor in Cold Economy, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. “Now, we have looked at how much food we need to eat and how much we need to produce, but what we haven’t done is understand what the logistics and especially the cold chain needs to look like to move 6 billion tonnes of food around the world,” Peters points out. “What would the energy impact be? How do we do it sustainably?” With food predominantly harvested by small, marginal farmers, typically on one to two hectares of land, Peters says that along with feeding the world, there is also a need to protect and economically enhance the lives of farmers. “So, the big exam question for me is, what does the cold chain need to look like to feed 10 billion people, while harnessing and protecting more than 500,000 farmers sustainably?” Owing to the pressing nature of this challenge, Peters says that the University of Birmingham, along with partner entities, has developed a Centre for Sustainable Cooling, which will bring together a global research community working collectively to accelerate solutions in the market. “It’s not just about technology, it’s about business models, policies, demonstrations and building skills capacity,” he says. “We have to work as a collective if we are going to deliver the changes required in the next decade.”

Currently, Peters says, the Centre has representatives from 20 universities across the globe, coming from the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia, including India, Singapore and Japan. The University of Birmingham is also actively working with Heriot-Watt University, as the institutions have campuses in the UAE and in Malaysia. “We have now done the first phase of collaboration and engagement, and we have a framework, which will be launched soon,” he says. Peters emphasises that the first important step was to develop a formal structure between key universities to move forward, as it offers an opportunity to cultivate global, systems-level thinking, bringing together different experts on issues ranging from technology to skills capacity. “It’s not simply about having research from different countries,” he says. “It’s also bringing together all the disciplines required to deliver something sustainable – environmentally, socially and economically.”


With increasing global awareness on the importance of cooling, Peters says that a number of exciting projects, in addition to those by the Centre, have emerged. A notable one is the development of a Needs Assessment Programme, he says, which is spearheaded by Heriot-Watt University, in partnership with Sustainable Energy for All (SEforAll). “Through this Programme, which will engage with Birmingham and others, we are moving towards a structured approach to address the problem, rather than silo activity, which might have short-term impact but doesn’t capture the full opportunities available or understand the necessary interventions required,” he says.

The Programme, Peters says, will enable governments, NGOs and development agencies to have a better understanding of their respective cooling needs to deliver access to cooling for all who need it, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and will, hopefully, lead to the implementation of appropriate and holistic action plans, which will mitigate the impact of cooling and, at the same time, ensure cooling is made available to all. Essentially, Peters says, the Programme aims to answer the question, ‘If we are to meet sustainability goals, how much cooling is required in this warming world?’ He points out that currently, according to SEforAll, more than one billion do not have access to cooling and suffer the consequences through food loss, lack of medicines and heat stress.

The programme, Peters says, consists of a robust methodology and an online tool to support governments and development agencies and banks working in the country. The local partner entities, he says, will provide support to particular government entities and help them understand their cooling needs. “Once you know what you need, you can assess available energy resources, whether it’s primary, waste heat, waste cold or renewables,” he says. “Then, you seek to understand the economic model, so you can identify solutions that look to mitigate demand sustainably. But to start, we must ask ourselves, ‘How much cooling do we need?’”

Peters explains that the online platform will not be designed to be a standalone tool. It is to be deployed and utilised with the support of a facilitator that can optimise it to address the particular needs of the country. “We want to make sure it is robust, but it has to be flexible,” he says. “It can’t be prescriptive, because different countries have different cooling needs.” Peters adds that the assessment exercise is an important starting point, otherwise national action plans will likely underestimate cooling needs, which might lead to a potentially problematic situation of designing for less cooling than is actually required.


Peters says a similar systems-level approach is also being applied in a Community Cooling Hub project specifically designed for rural communities, which the University of Birmingham is undertaking with Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, CEE and with local partners in India. “At the moment, we are looking at all the different cooling requirements in silos, looking at different pieces of equipment and looking at cold chain for food, as independent from cold chain for vaccines,” he says. “But, with all these complex and diverse requirements, if we understand the needs from a community level, we can then potentially aggregate services to provide them in a more energy-efficient way.”

Peters says the University of Birmingham and its partners are working with communities to understand current cooling needs from a needs perspective, as well as expected requirements in the coming years, so they can prepare accordingly. “You don’t want a system designed to address historical need, you want a system that considers and addresses future demand, driven by access to cooling for all who need it,” he says. Through the initiative, Peters says, they are going into four communities to identify and capture data in order to better design a Community Cooling Hub that will meet cooling demand through the use of natural ventilation, shading and other passive cooling measures as well as harnessing waste energy and renewables . “It’s not simply about looking at electrically-driven mechanical cooling as a solution,” he says, “It’s about working with communities to design what a Community Cooling Hub would look like for them mitigating demand and using all the resources available.” Peters says that they aim to deploy the first Hub in 2020.

Underpinning the importance of the initiative, Peters says that rural communities are the ones that suffer most from gaps in the cold chain, adding that heat stress from rising temperatures is a threat to the life and livelihood the farmers, as well as to the animals and the crops, thus potentially contributing to deficiencies in the global food network. In India alone, he says, there is a requirement to build 70,000 pack houses for food aggregation points, which requires reliable cold storage and cold chain. Sharing his optimism despite the challenges ahead, Peters says that there is scope for these communities to leapfrog from having no cooling solutions to sustainable models, with the correct financial and technical support and by aggregating revenue sources.


To ensure the success of these projects, Peters says a collaborative approach among private and public sectors is vital. However, he says, the cooling industry faces another problem in the shortage of available people that have the necessary skills and training to deploy and maintain specialised equipment. Peters says we need to bring key people from public sector development agencies and NGOs to develop an accelerated programme to address the lack of training but that it is important for the industry to do its part to attract the next generation of workers. In Australia, he points out, refrigeration engineers are the highest paid trade owing to demand. “What I want young people to understand is that cooling isn’t about compressors and refrigerants; it’s actually about our life, it’s the backbone of our health, food and data,” he says. “We cannot survive without cooling.”

Peters says that currently, cooling is not an area of engineering and science that is deemed to be particularly exciting, but that the industry should work together to showcase how it is a core sector vital to our way of life and to diversify the human capital. In the United Kingdom, Peters adds, the industry is made up of predominantly older males. “A small percent are women,” he says. “We need to change that perception, and we can do so by moving the message from technology to why we need cooling and why it is relevant to life.” In a warming world, Peters says, sustainable cooling should be a priority for people of all ages and all walks of life.

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