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Posted at: Sep 24, 2018, 12:17 AM; last updated: Sep 24, 2018, 12:17 AM (IST)AGRICULTURE: COLD CHAIN INFRASTRUCTURE

A world without waste

India’s food security mission should start from prevention of wastage across farm-to-fork value chain, writes Vijay C Roy

After China, India is the second largest producer of horticultural crops and fruits. But it is unable to meet food requirements of its entire population. One of the reasons is the post-harvest losses due to the lack of storage facilities and proper logistic infrastructure.

Indian farmers are unable to reap optimum economic benefits of their produce because they cannot fetch good rates by selling fruits and vegetables in the local markets. They cannot afford to wait for the glut to be over because of the perishable nature of the produce. 

India is ignoring cold chain infrastructure at huge economic costs. It is estimated that about 21 million metric tonne of wheat - almost equal to Australia's production - rots every year due to improper storage. According to the Agriculture Ministry, food products worth Rs 50,000 crore are wasted every year in the country. The loss is during production, processing, retailing and consumption stages.

It is estimated that 1 million tonne of onion rot between farms to markets, and for tomatoes, the number is about 2.2 million tonne. A nationwide network of cold chain infrastructure would not only check wastage, but also prevent distress selling.

The post-harvest loss is the highest in case of perishable food items like fruits and vegetables; followed by fisheries, oil seeds, pulses and cereals. India produces around 100 million tonnes of fruits and 180 million tonne of vegetables. However, around 40 per cent of the produce perishes due to lack of adequate cold storage facilities.

A study commissioned by the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, and carried out by the Central Institute of Post Harvest Engineering & Technology (CIPHET) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), highlights that the quantum of quantitative farm losses in 2015 was in the range of 6.7 per cent to 15.88 per cent for fruits and 4.58 per cent to 12.44 per cent for vegetables. As per the study, these losses occur at various farming stages. 

India's food security mission, therefore, starts from minimising wastage of farm produce. For that, the country needs large storage capacities. A study conducted by the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Kolkata has found that only 10 per cent of perishables get access to the cold storage facilities. These are mostly used for potatoes to meet India's robust demand for fried chips. The study estimates that the country needs additional storage facilities for about 370 million metric tonne of perishable produce.

A start can be made with micro storage facilities. According to a pilot study sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, food losses can be reduced by 60 per cent by using low-cost storage techniques.

Besides storage, there is a need to have cold chain infrastructure to transport goods from one place to another. Cold chain extends the shelf life and thus usability of the commodity in its best form. It helps in the availability of produce in lean season. The entire infrastructure thus augments farmer's income and creates employment.

According to experts, investments in cold chain, specifically in pre-cooling and transport refrigeration equipment, can reduce food loss by 76 per cent and CO2 equivalent emissions by 16 per cent. Investments in low-cost technologies such as zero energy cool chambers (ZECC) at the back end help to reduce the food loss in subsequent stages and generate better returns to the farmer. The fresh produce stored in ZECC also retains moisture.

The estimated annual production of fruits and vegetables in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh is around 5 -7 million metric tonne. But, the region faces acute shortage of storage facilities and cold chain infrastructure. There are only about 900 cold storages with a combined capacity of about 3 million metric tonne. Moreover, these cold storage facilities are mostly for a single commodity such as potato, onion, apple, orange and flowers, resulting in poor capacity utilisation.

The lack of infrastructure provides opportunity to startups. Recently, a company has launched an affordable solar-powered cold storage unit for remote areas of Punjab and Haryana. Customised for rural and semi-urban requirements, the product is economically viable and beneficial for farmers and other users. The medium-sized cold room unit, with a storage space of about 4-5 metric tonne, costs Rs 11-12 lakh only. 

The current technology focus is, however, shifting from building just cold stores to integrated cold chain infrastructure. The stakeholders, including government need to invest in creating cold storage facilities and cold supply chains by providing adequate subsidy to enterprising youth and farmers.

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