India has the world's largest footprint in cold stores and estimates indicate that over the last few decades we have created 130 million cubic metres of refrigerated warehousing space. Quite importantly, 97% of these happen use a natural gas for their refrigeration -- in effect, this is the world's largest collection of ammonia-based refrigeration. This is not a petty matter, as most of the developed world has cold stores that deploy artificial refrigerants. Unlike ammonia, these artificial fluids -- Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) -- either caused ozone depletion or are negatively impacting global warming.
The risk to global warming from a few million tonnes of produce spoiling is far more than the risk from the refrigerant gases that go into safeguarding it.
In Europe alone, reports indicate that almost 50% of the food chain refrigeration is using gases with a thousand times global warming potential (GWP) compared to CO2. Ammonia on the other hand, which is extensively used in India, has zero GWP.
However, India cannot sit pretty because we are entering the next stage of development of our cold-chain. This involves creation of thousands of farm-gate packhouses and multiplying our reefer transport capacity. The first brings decision-making capacity to farm-gate and the latter is necessary to complete the physical link with markets. Both these cold-chain options function for small loads (in comparison to cold stores), and may have intermittent capacity utilization. In these instances, ammonia-based refrigeration is unlikely to be used but the world has yet to decide about which other refrigerant is the safest to use, as HFC gases need to be phased out.
Now, the world frets over the knowledge that leaking refrigerant gases add to global warming. There is a studied risk that 20% of refrigerant gas in use will leak into the atmosphere. However, it may do well if the pundits also brood over the global warming impact should these refrigerants not be available to the food supply chain.
Globally, humankind wastes about 1.3 billion tonnes of food, the highest share belonging to fruits and vegetables. In fact, the World Resources Institute reported that worldwide food loss and waste, if clubbed on its own, is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
We need to keep in mind that India is the largest producer of certain fruits and vegetables, and last year, it is estimated that our farmers produced over 283 million tonnes in horticulture crops alone. Cold-chain is the sole scientific mode of handling that can safely bring this produce to gainful end-use. Cold-chain is an agri-logistics system that is transformational in impact and an important part of the next agricultural revolution.
Cold-chain empowers farmers with the ability to directly link with consumers, while retaining custody of the harvested value. At times confused with food processing factories, cold-chain is actually only a custodian of value, between farm-gate and consumer gate, especially in case of fresh produce. Cold-chain, simply put, serves as a bridge between rural source and urban consumption and therefore reduces food loss.
Each tonne of fruits and vegetables spoiled decomposes into approximately 1.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent in greenhouse gases.
The risk to global warming from a few million tonnes of this produce spoiling is far more than the risk from the gases that go into safeguarding it. This implies that while we urgently work towards developing safer refrigerants, we ought not to lose sight of the wood for the trees, because food loss and waste is the greater devil, a far larger culprit of climate change. Hence, if the aim is to counter global warming, then do not target the refrigerant gas blindly, but prioritize sensibly. While we move to use the Montreal Protocol framework to phase out gases with global warming potential, let's also keep a count of the climate cost of incurring added food spoilage.
Reducing food loss & waste (FLW) is key to the survival of human civilization.
Reducing food loss and waste (FLW) is key to the survival of human civilization. There are various measures on food loss (post-harvest) and food waste (in the hands of consumers). The first is a matter of optimizing agri-business operations, and the latter is about changing cultural behaviour. Talking of which, the Indian subcontinental and SE Asian region has the lowest FLW of 126kg per person per annum. In comparison, North Africa & West/Central Asia loses 216kg per capita and North America incurs FLW of 296 kg/person/annum.
While our populations grow, the pressure on agriculture grows faster because of wasteful production. Mitigating FLW translates into reduced green-house-gases and a cooler earth.