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Cold Chain Tech Chipping Away at the Food Waste Issue

We can get papaya from Brazil to Montana and coconuts from the Philippines to Russia, but we still have yet to eradicate hunger in the world.  Globally, we produce more than enough food every year to feed the Earth’s population, but 1 in 8 people will go to bed hungry tonight. What haven’t we figured out yet to ensure that everyone gets something to eat? The answer, in part anyway, is reliable refrigeration along supply chains.

The Food Waste Problem

About 14% of food is lost along supply chain lines simply because it can’t be kept at a consistently cool temperature that will keep it fresh enough to sell. Fish, meat, dairy products and produce have to survive travel from harvest point, which is often in a rural area, into a storage facility, then be transported to a production point possibly overseas or across country, and finally to a distribution point. If refrigeration doesn’t stay consistent, these perishable items might not make it into anyone’s grocery cart.

The issue is an environmental one in that food waste, particularly from meat, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. If there’s a way to save more harvested food through better refrigeration systems, more people could have access to more food, food prices could fall, and there would be less emissions from food waste. Salvaging the lost food could decrease food wasted emissions by 41% and offset the energy emissions used for refrigeration.

Refrigeration Systems and the Global Economy

Global economics is a larger issue. A rural farmer in an undeveloped country might have excellent crops growing, but if he can’t get them to a buyer then they are not very valuable; instead they are a problem. For developed nations, refrigeration is commonplace, and yet there are still many gaps and breakdowns. It’s hard to imagine a fisherman across the globe contemplating how to keep the day’s catch cold enough to get to a city that might have a blast freezer or a temperature regulated warehouse before they start to go bad. 

Even when that is possible the storage facility is often dependent on an unreliable power source that can cause disruptions in the temperature settings.  Lose power for an hour or a day, and the contents of the building begin to spoil. If products make it from the warehouse onto a refrigeration truck or shipping container the food is still at the mercy of technology and in many cases, outdated equipment or a dilapidated transportation infrastructure.  The result is very limited options for undeveloped areas to generate economic growth and tap into solid markets. 

Similarly, the United States imports around 75% of its produce. As populations rise, building cold chain systems and strategies will be crucial. Many countries rely on undeveloped nations for food, yet there are significant gaps in the connectedness which leads to waste and lack of opportunity. The undisrupted sequence of cooling and cold storage systems and the ability to transfer real time data up and down the chain is crucial and if developed further, could create a more stable economic trade system in the future.

The Future of Refrigeration and Cold Chains

Market access may become less limited in the coming years. It’s an exciting time for supply chains as data driven technology is allowing for better monitoring of products. In turn, location specific systems and processes will develop to keep more food fresh as it makes its way to consumers.  If a container of produce has been jeopardized it could potentially be rerouted in real time to be used immediately rather than being rendered unusable and categorized as waste.

There’s a global effort to aid undeveloped nations and help them gain access to better cooling technology because it benefits the rural farmer just as much as it benefits the countries who depend on fresh fish and produce imports. Climate specific technology is underway; meaning we could see desert specific refrigeration systems or new tropical specific tech. Small scale warehouses, some the size of shipping containers, have been built to give rural producers a way to keep the perishable harvests cool and fresh. Many of these new technologies are making use of natural resources like wind and water, doing away with ozone depleting substances.

Access to cooling technology is important, but so is bolstering infrastructure that supports it. Intact roads and reliable energy sources are part of the equation. Many countries have collaborated to infuse rural areas with solar and battery backed equipment already; investments that could significantly reduce food waste numbers. These same countries have also donated money to bring roadways and transportations systems up to par in at least 70 countries.  Education is the next component to prioritize. Ensuring that all workers along a cold chain understand their refrigeration technology and communications system will also support less food waste.

The medical world is also very dependent on cold chain routes making this a collaboration of more than just agricultural institutions. Data driven technology is making communication between these multiple sectors more efficient. Now, a truck headed to New York or Shanghai could be carrying both spinach and vaccinations, making transport costs more affordable and reducing food waste by offering a solution to very narrow delivery timetables. 

Unlike other sectors of agriculture, these highly perishable products have to harness time and make it work in their favor. Any technology or system that buys these supply chains a little extra time or the guarantee of a set timetable is a worthwhile investment. Reliable refrigeration has the capacity to lower food waste, ensure that fewer and fewer people go hungry and even have a positive impact on the environment. Even more so, it has the power to bring farmers in underdeveloped nations closer to their desired consumer markets.

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