The Government of India (GoI) has put forth substantial emphasis on doubling farmers’ income, by 2022, through productivity gains. The GoI has set out a seven-point strategy in 2016 and launched Operation Green (in line with Operation Flood) to support agri-logistics, food processing units and food producer organisations. Though Indian agriculture sector has transformed in terms of agricultural volume, the sector keeps on grappling with structural issues such as average farm size, modernisation of farm practices, marketability or handling of post-harvest produce (Robin Singhal and Shalini Saksena). Due to this system level inefficiency, about Rs. 92,000 crore worth of major agricultural produce at 2014 wholesale prices is lost in India every year (Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology, 2016). The actual economic loss will be manifold if we consider retail price, hunger, farmer distress and farm loan wavers.
It is pertinent to mention here that food wastage is a global phenomenon. However, in developed economies, maximum food is wasted after reaching the consumers whereas in developing economies food produce is lost before it reaches the consumers. It is estimated that better handling, storage and processing of food produce can feed around 11 per cent of global population. India produced 263 million tons in 2013-2014 and required 225-230 million tons of food in that year (A. Sarkar et al.). In spite of producing enough, there is difficulty in feeding people due to food loss. While many factors contribute to post-harvest losses in India, one of the major causes is the lack of effective and efficient cold-chains.
Developing an integrated cold-chain is one of the key measures under ‘Operation Green’ to modernise farm practices and handling of post-harvest produce and minimise food loss. Cold-chain is an integrated and immaculate network of refrigerated and temperature-controlled pack houses, distribution hubs and freight used to maintain the safety and quality of food, thus, building efficient market links. Cold-chains reduce post-harvest food loss and increase farm income by storing and transporting high quality produce to distant cities throughout the year.
The National Centre for Cold-chain Development (NCCD), set up by the Ministry of Agriculture has undertaken specific steps towards promoting cold-chains throughout the country. The NCCD-NABARD Consultancy Services (NABCONS) study published in 2015 highlights substantial gaps in the pack-houses, bulk cold-storages, refrigeration vehicles and ripening chambers. There is an estimated shortfall of 96 per cent pack-houses, 85 per cent refrigeration vehicles, 10 per cent bulk-storage and 91 per cent ripening chambers. Hence, a massive capacity addition in pack-houses, refrigeration vehicles and ripening chambers is required by 2022. Because of the impetus provided by Operation Green, cold chains in India are expected to proliferate rapidly. While the growth in cold-chain infrastructure brings hope to improve market connectivity and reduce food loss in the agriculture sector, this is likely to come with substantial energy and environmental costs. Hence, there is a need to leapfrog the conventional, polluting, energy inefficient technology and move towards energy efficient, affordable, and clean cold-chain system. Operation Green is an excellent opportunity to introduce clean cold-chain technologies and prevent long-term lock-in of fossil-fuel intensive technologies. Such technologies will increase energy efficiency and promote the use of renewable energy and low GWP (Global Warming Potential) and zero ODS (Ozone Depletion Substance) refrigerants.
However, past failures like the potato mission indicates that the conventional approach of creating cold storages will neither solve the problem of farmer’s distress nor stop the post-harvest food wastage. Due to consecutive policy implementation failures, the country ended up creating many large, fragmented and inefficient cold storages, which often run on diesel power due to the unavailability of reliable electricity supply. With 60 per cent of cold storages located in four states i.e. Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Gujarat and Punjab wherein majority of the cold storages are for a single commodity – potato, the existing cold storage infrastructure is unable to meet the huge demand supply gap which persists for various non-potato farm produces across the country (Centre for Public Policy Research).
The new cold-chains must transport food produce from farm gate to end consumers sustainably and relay demand from consumers to farm gate efficiently, with minimal environmental impact. It is necessary to explore new ideas like creating Agri-IT infrastructure which enables market data driven harvesting of produce to avoid unnecessary storage. Encourage private sectors to provide ‘cooling as a service’. Rather than the conventional approach of selling cooling equipment to farmers and traders, an alternative approach in which the cooling requirements is delivered efficiently by a third party. The University of Birmingham in its report on ‘India’s Third Agricultural Revolution – Doubling Farmer’s Income through Clean Cold-chains’, suggests the creation of a series of regional ‘living labs’ called the India Clean Cold-chain Centres as a means of solving the interlinked challenges of clean cold-chain development. These clean cold-chain Living Lab and Innovation Centres will test, validate and demonstrate innovative and integrated solutions (technology and business model). While designing a cooling infrastructure, engineers should start thinking ‘Thermally First’. Locally or easily available thermal energy (like biomass, solar, phase change materials, free cooling) options should be optimally explored before introducing electric refrigeration systems. (MPEnsystems, et al 2019. Promoting Clean and Energy Efficient Col-Chain in India).
The country may also be able to fulfil the cooling need of rural India by creating community cooling hubs. Under the new model, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation will assess various thermal (hot and cold) requirements within the supply chain and the local community. We design cooling as a service infrastructure rather than as a product, which could be funded by entrepreneurs and farmer producer companies. The cooling infrastructure could then be utilised for multiple purposes: storage of vaccines and medicines, support to secondary agriculture and food processing activities, preparation and use of ice for fisheries, etc. Thus, increasing the commercial viability of a cold-chain infrastructure and widening its social impacts. Finally, all future development of cold-chain infrastructure should harness the potential of renewable energy resource, new thermal focused technologies, choice of refrigerants along with optimising electricity and fuel consumption.