Poor Food Logistics Aids Global Warming

By Pawanexh Kohli

Humankind needs to quickly wake up to more innovative ideas, to advanced technologies and greener solutions to mitigate post-harvest food loss.

...we are capable of handling only 60% of our production. Rest, is in fact... 100% waste!

In the last few decades, globally, scientists and cultivation experts continued to pursue glorious successes - to increase crop yield and farm-gate productivity. The fact that in matters of food, first-mile productivity is of no avail unless it translates at the finish line, had escaped that euphoria of producing more. A resultant demand-supply-mismatch emerged across agricultural commodities, contributing to widespread food loss and a crisis in managing the output that goes waste.

As per FAO reports, worldwide food lost & wasted equals one-third of the total food produced. This means about 1.3 billion tons food is discarded every year, due to post-production spoilage because of lack of farm-to-market connectivity, in transit loss, and some that is thrown and wasted in the hands of end-users.

This quantum of food loss & waste (FLW) also adds to global warming, the waste alone being associated with about 0.5 Gigatons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases. Unless corrected, these emissions are expected to go up five-fold to 2.5 Gigatons by 2050, as per a study by Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The total greenhouse gas emissions from both the loss and the waste are estimated at 4.4 Gigatons. While pockets of the globe go hungry, one-third of what we produce decomposes into greenhouse gases to heat up our atmosphere, having depleting key resources at first instance.

Over the last few years, India too witnessed a marked increase in its farm output, especially in high nutrition produce like fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, fish, and poultry. However, all these food items are highly perishable and required the developing, in tandem, of an associated perishable supply chain system. Yet, the progressive advance in logistics infrastructure was not always strategically directed, leaving missing links in various stages of the food chain.

This inability to bridge the demand-supply gap - unable to convey fully the harvested fresh produce to gainful end-use (markets) - allows millions of tons of food to be lost, and makes agriculture unsustainable. This also causes acute price fluctuations and fosters sporadic inflation.

India’s horticulture (fruits, vegetables, spices, flowers) production has continually surpassed food grain production in last 3 years, touching a high of 283 million tons in 2016. An average 35 percent inefficiency in transit from farm-to-consumer means to 1 hundred million tons of fruits and veggies is being lost. Add to this, the other losses estimated of the annual production of 15 million tons of fish and meats and about 166 million tons of milk.

Except in milk handling and frozen food sector, the market-linked logistics that ensures safe handling and conveyance till consumers have been left grossly inadequate. Instead, the cold-chain for most fresh perishables produce was developed with a mindset to deny-and-time the market.

The opportunity to capture-and-service a bigger market was ignored or not fully understood. Holistic needs were overlooked with the short-sighted preference to hoard-to-defer market transactions. Such a strategy cannot contribute to inclusive growth or higher productivity. Neither does such strategy promote supply chain excellence or build an opportunity to scale the food distribution chain.

Unable to convey the harvested fresh produce to gainful end-use (markets), lets millions of tons of food to be discarded ... and that makes agriculture unsustainable!

The inadequacy of technology-aided farm-to-market logistics is a key contributor to food loss volumes and this adds to inflationary pressures, more so in case of perishable foods. Most critically, every surplus ton that we produce only adds to the food losses if it can find no access to markets and then farming is not sustainable and amounts to naught.

Worldwide, we must approach the problem differently, “that we lose 40% of what we produce, indicates we are capable of handling only 60% of our output. Anything more than what our supply lines can handle is in fact 100 percent wasted”.

It is apparent, we need to scale up our logistics and distribution network, so as to effectively bridge production and demand. Our changed situations require a more dynamic and connected food supply chain.

Technology intervention should be to enhance our throughput handling capacity, not merely to add to holding capacity!

The answer to food loss is to bridge the gaps between the point of harvest and multiple points of consumption. This means, opening market access and ensuring food supply chains are strengthened. For high perishable food types, the answer needs cold-chain logistics. Food processing technologies are often confused with cold-chain, but it too cannot stop food loss, as the frozen pea or bottled ketchup will also end up as expired waste unless it finds logistics connectivity with markets.

Food processing is a helpful intermediary in the food supply chain by processing unusable or special produce. Nevertheless, everything cannot be processed, plus as consumers become affluent, processed foods or artificially fortified foods take the back seat. Moreover, in its current avatar, the processing industry is already consumer-driven and highly competitive. If markets could absorb more processed or convenience foods, the industry would not be restrained in developing to meet such demand.

On the other hand, the fresh whole food market has remained bereft of substantive market linkage or demand based metrics. India's farming community mainly functions to service a push mode into wholesale markets, and therefore will be the main beneficiaries of any increase in their access to many more markets.

The solution is to empower with connectivity into the unified domestic market and strengthening the ability to deliver and reach into multiple other markets in the greater region. Agri-logistics and cold-chains can bring immense value to agrarian economies - by empowering the producers with the ability to reach across geographies and offering them a choice into more markets.

Food produced must reach the point of consumption; whole food is the preferred mode of nutrition; productivity is best measured at end-point or point of delivery; food delivery systems directly impact climate change; when all delivery options fail, non-marketable food can be retrieved and optimized upon through processing technologies.

When food delivery systems fail... instead of feeding people, global warming gets fed!

Stop Food Loss to Stop Global Warming: Supply chain leaders must set direction, take leadership roles, with the aim to create better practices that will help sustain our global population and the globe itself. Remember, the food lost is not just value lost but is a heavy load on global warming.

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