Growing the Cold Chain: An Essential Key to Reducing Food Waste

cold chain

When we think of food waste, we usually think first about our own consumption, and that’s a great start. But it’s just the start.

From commercializing “ugly” produce that once never would have made it to the supermarket to revolutionizing expiration dates, the developed world has been making leaps and bounds in reducing its food waste. But there’s another, less visible but even more important problem: two-thirds of the food that is lost or wasted on the planet happens at the production or distribution level. This is happening mainly in emerging economies due in large part to a lack of reliable cold chain.

“We grow and produce enough food today to feed 10 billion people,” explains John Mandyck, Chief Sustainability Officer at United Technologies Corporation. “We live on a planet of 7 billion people. And only about 6 billion people are getting enough food.”

What is a Cold Chain?

A cold chain is a temperature-controlled supply chain allowing perishable food to be transported in a refrigerated environment from where it is produced to where it is consumed.

In the developed world, the cold chain is a well-oiled machine. Truck and trailer units in the United States and Europe can cool a single truckload to three different temperature points, allowing distributors to transport frozen fish, fresh meat, and delicate strawberries all at once.

In the developing world, where such technology is not available, countries often use an open pickup truck to transport food to open-air markets, meaning that perishable food is less likely to make it all the way to its destination without at least some spoilage.

“In some countries, 50 percent of fruits and vegetables are lost before consumers can have access to them,” says Mandyck. “The International Institute of Refrigeration has estimated that less than 10 percent of the world’s perishable foods are refrigerated today.”

Finding a Solution to Cold Chain Woes

In order to reduce the amount of food waste caused by cold chain problems, the solution seems clear: introduce refrigerated transportation technology to the developing world. Of course, this is not nearly as easy as it sounds.

The distribution systems that work so well in the developed world are difficult to translate to developing countries, due to a lack of appropriate road infrastructure for transport vehicles of this size, lack of support infrastructure for servicing them, and the price tag on these technologies.

That’s where Mandyck and his team come in. They have been working to reverse engineer their products to develop high-quality yet simpler refrigeration systems that would cool to just one temperature point. These smaller, more affordable systems have already helped jump-start the cold chain in developing economies like India, where United Technologies Corporation has already successfully introduced such vehicles.

Financing the Cold Chain

Of course, there is one issue: even with a lower price point, these vehicles are often still too expensive for those who need them. There is, however, one major incentive for governments to invest in them: climate change.

Given the extremely intensive way in which we produce food – from electricity for water pumps to diesel for transport vehicles to methane produced by intensive animal agriculture – food waste worldwide produces 3.3 billion metric tons of CO2, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

“We’re encouraging countries to look at food waste as the sleeping climate issue,” explains Mandyck. “It is the only climate policy that will reduce significant greenhouse gases, feed more people, save water, and promote national security. There is no other climate policy that can do that.”

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.