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Cold chain infra key to minimising food loss

Abhilaksh Likhi

FOCUSING attention on the impact of food loss and waste on nutritional security, natural resources and climate change is among the key mandates of India’s G20 presidency. The objective is to build a consensus on leveraging economic opportunities for small and marginal farmers through sharing of global reduction strategies, innovative approaches and the best practices.

In this context, ‘Saptkrishi’ is a startup in Bihar that is helping farmers store their produce for a longer time while also keeping it fresh. A unique storage device developed by it, called ‘Sabjikothi’, requires 10 watts of electricity either on or off the grid and a litre of water a day. This storage device can be transported on anything, from a wooden cart to an e-rickshaw or even a truck. Compared to conventional refrigeration that can store up to 30 to 40 kg of fresh produce, the ‘Sabjikothi’ offers 10 times the capacity. This enables preservation of fruits and vegetables, the startup claims, up to 30 days and prevents produce loss as well as CO2 emissions.

Interestingly, ‘Saptkrishi’ has also created a chain of farmgate micro-entrepreneurs in cities such as Bhagalpur, Patna and Kanpur who can purchase produce from farmers digitally through the startup’s app at a fair price and sell directly to consumers.

The 2021-22 horticulture production of 342.33 million tonnes has outpaced the production of foodgrains in the country. A significant change is also occurring in the food consumption pattern from cereals towards nutrition-rich diets. More specifically, with a production of 107.24 million tonnes and 204.84 million tonnes, fruits and vegetables account for 31.1 per cent and 59.8 per cent of the domestic production, respectively. Their share is 11.4 per cent and 11.8 per cent of the world production, respectively. While we are the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world (largest producer of mango, banana, guava, papaya, lemon, lime, and okra), our global share of horticulture exports stands at 1.4 per cent and 0.8 per cent for vegetables and fruits, respectively.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), out of 1,850 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables produced globally, approximately 44 per cent in developing countries are lost in the supply chain between harvest and consumption. A study conducted by the ICAR-Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering & Technology (CIPHET) points out that for fruits and vegetables the post-harvest losses in India range from 4.58 per cent to 15.88 per cent of the country’s horticulture production.

The Doubling Farmers’ Income Committee (DFI) Report, 2017, also affirms that for the farmers, especially small and marginal ones, fruits and vegetables fetch the highest economic value in their fresh form and that post-harvest ageing can only be slowed down by cooling to their optimal holding temperatures and through humidity control.

Hence, experts have emphasised on the need to invest in post-harvest ‘cold chain infrastructure’ at the farmgate on a massive scale that would enable more farmers to preserve fruits and vegetables while also giving them the necessary time to sell at a remunerative price.

In such a cold chain, the harvest undergoes cleaning, sorting, grading, washing, waxing and packaging along with pre-cooling at a farmgate aggregation ‘pack house’. The produce is further transported to cold rooms on wheels (also called reefer vehicles) to distribution hubs with ripening chambers in and around periodic haats, wholesale, retail and terminal markets and, thus, preventing food losses.

Experts, however, point out that a majority of the cold stores are standalone units and do not own direct connectivity in the form of refrigerated transport (whether by road, port, rail or air) since they were designed to service crops like dried chilies and seeds. They, therefore, contend that there is a need to create these integrated facilities in the agricultural supply chain between the Origin (farm source) and Destination (consumer market) — ‘OD pairs’ — by factoring in seasonality as well as crop specificities: for fruits and vegetables such as mango, banana, papaya, lemon, okra, onion, tomato, cabbage, cauliflower, brinjal and cucurbits that are abundantly grown for the domestic market and for mango, banana, grapes and pomegranate that are exported.

A 2015 study conducted by the National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD) estimates the need for capital investment of Rs 89,375 crore for setting up such integrated farmgate infrastructure in the country. The NCCD also conducted a study in 2016 to measure the impact of cold chain for the low-cost, high-yield fruit mandarin (kinnow) from farmgate in Punjab to a market 2,500 km away in Bengaluru by truck. The study revealed a food loss reduction to the extent of 76 per cent.

In this context, the Rs 1 lakh-crore Agricultural Infrastructure Fund (AIF) provides instruments of medium- and long-term debt financing for farmgate cold chain to agri entrepreneurs, startups, FPOs and e-marketing platforms in the states.

Second, ‘Kisan Rail’ and ‘Kisan Udaan’ initiatives have been launched to supplement efforts to strengthen post-harvest connectivity under the Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture. The Haryana Government, in fact, has signed an MoU with the University of Birmingham to develop horticulture Centres of Excellence for ‘clean’ cold chains, too.

The G20 agriculture group deliberations to strengthen knowledge-sharing of food waste reduction strategies under India’s presidency assume criticality in the context of the three crises of the pandemic, conflict and climate change.

The G20-nurtured Technical Platform on the Measurement and Reduction of Food Loss and Waste (TPFLW) based in Rome provides factsheets on the adoption of best practices based on successful field pilots in 56 supply chains across 23 countries. The need of the hour is to broad-base these factsheets by plugging in inputs on low-cost innovations by agri startups like ‘Saptkrishi’ from developing countries. The latter also have the added potential of providing gainful employment to ex-servicemen/rural youth/women in cold chain-backed farmgate pack houses and distribution transport for fruits and vegetables.

(Courtesy Tribune India)

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