The second International Conference on Asian Food Security (ICAFS), held three years ago in Singapore, highlighted a key concern affecting regional food security; that of the ineffectiveness and inefficiencies of Southeast Asia’s food supply chains.
To improve the effectiveness of these supply chains, there is a need to simplify procedures, reduce costs in transport and cold chains, and ensure food safety, among other changes. In fact, we contend that the latter two points, often understated in food security discussions because of their operational nature, deserve greater attention.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that in order to feed future populations, the developing world will have to double its food productivity by 2050. This will require an estimated US$83 billion in annual investments.
According to the ICAFS report, current investments stand at US$55 billion. Much of the shortfall will have to be met by the private sector, with governments picking up ‘the slack’. Possible areas of private sector involvement include the food supply chain and storage facilities.
Over and above the stressed situation of food production and distribution, food producers in Southeast Asia have to contend with rising food demands from increasing populations, land competition from other socio-economic activities, stressed water sources, as well as food wastage— now mostly at the production end but increasingly moving towards retail.
As in all investments, those in food production activities are tied to expected returns. If not forthcoming, this can result, accompanying other reasons, in higher food prices, which could give rise to catastrophic effects both for national and regional food and economic securities.
The question arises on how we can ensure a sufficient supply of food that can be delivered in a safe manner while reducing wastage at any point in the supply chain, and reducing the volatility of food prices.
How do we achieve all these within increasingly ‘disrupted’ production cycles, resulting from changes in both physical and anthropological systems? This is all the more pressing with possible adverse impacts of climate change looming over, a harbinger of gloom for the future.
Balancing Increasing Needs And Finite Resources
The two parallel global developments of climate change and increasing populations will no doubt have significant impacts on food production and distribution. Add to the mix, the increasing energy demands to address housing needs, industries and transportation.
Greater energy will also be required for increased food production. The net outcome of these activities would translate to increased carbon emissions adding to global warming and in fact leading to a never-ending vicious cycle.
Here we propose using an innovative incremental change in existing cold chain systems—as part of wider changes in the agricultural sector including greater investments in research and development—to address these issues of food and energy demands, especially in the areas of food storage and safety.
Our focus is mostly on the small-scale farmers of Southeast Asia—the ones that produce around 80 percent of food. But there is room for widening our suggestion, as will be discussed shortly, to encompass larger rural and urban food sectors.
A significant problem for farmers is food wastage, especially the highly perishable fruits and vegetables. The reduced efficiencies of existing cold storage, something not all can afford in the first place, does little to alleviate the problem.
It is important to note that effective storage capabilities can be used to address falls and rises in production and minimise price fluctuations, helping to not only ensure a continuous supply, but also maintain a decent quality of the produce. Two of the key macro issues in cold storage logistics are the costs involved, especially for small-scale producers, and the cost of increasing energy consumption.
According to a 2013 Wall Street Journal Report on cold storage in India, the lack of cold storage and infrastructure is one of the main reasons why food prices have spiralled. There was the inability to preserve what was produced. In light of potential temperature increases in the future, among other changes, it is not only important to increase crop yields but to also be able to preserve what is produced, without rot.
Given the above—the issues with food and energy demands, problems with cold storage, and greater private sector investments, we suggest a tangential approach to addressing these issues with one type of technology that has been in existence for 4,000 years; that of harnessing the evaporative cooling process that occurs naturally to maintain our core body temperatures.
What if we could emulate the natural cooling process of the human body and capture it to cool produce from ‘farm to fork’?
Evaporative Cooling To Improve Cold Storage
Evaporative cooling is a process that occurs when water cools off a surface, cooling the surface in the process. The Ancient Egyptians, Romans and early Persian societies have used evaporative cooling not only to cool themselves and their homes, but also to store food to prevent it from rotting and going to waste; essential to maintaining household food stocks in scarce times or in regions where food is not readily available.
As farfetched as it might seem to some, this has already been undertaken by the creators of a storage vessel that uses the evaporative cooling process to store food without the use of electricity known as the Evaptainer. CNN Money describes it as a “lightweight, efficient cooling system that can be used in a wide variety of applications”.
The evaporative cooling process also helps reduce or remove some common cold storage problems as well. For example, two key issues are that of the inside air temperature being warmer than desired during the storage period and the rising consumption of electricity. Classic approaches would include upping refrigeration capacity and using ‘band aid’ methods like tightening gaps in vessel and installing flaps etc.
We do not claim to be experts in evaporative cooling, but the process, we think, would work more efficiently with increasing environmental temperatures, which would increase the evaporation rates and thus ‘install’ better cooling for the produce that is in the vessel. As for the lack of electricity in the whole set up, the positives of that speaks for itself.
The seamless transfer of produce from storage to transport is also a big issue in cold storage. A way of addressing potential temperature differentials would be to store produce in containers that use evaporative cooling technology and transfer directly into transport vehicles that are fitted with the same technology. This would minimise the handling of food, which would contribute positively towards ensuring food safety.
Notwithstanding that there have been advances in mobile refrigeration, such as the use of solar power to ‘fix the broken cold chains’. These ‘green’ approaches come with a high pricetag for installation, which means access is denied to many small-scale food producers.
This particular ‘green’ cold storage that uses evaporative cooling reduces the producers’ (and consumers’) carbon footprints and keeps costs significantly lower than solarpowered refrigeration.
Farmers Need Additional Help From The Industry
Given that climate change will have universal impacts regardless of size and ownership of farms, and the almost ‘symbiotic’ relationship between small-scale farmers and large food corporations in terms of labour supply and additional food supplies in crunch times, it has become a necessity for the private sector to invest in smaller farms.
One way to do so is to look into the possibilities of harnessing evaporative cooling for ‘green’ cold storage in rural Southeast Asia. We suggest the creation of a resource pool (of funding buffered by the private sector and government funds) that looks into developing or adapting Evaptainer-like containers as cold storage facilities.
We feel that individuals and/or corporations in the food industry should in fact take the lead in this venture. Due to the potential of extreme weather situations in the future, it makes commercial sense for food industry operators to make strategic choices in helping smallholder farmers avoid putting all of their eggs in one basket in the food supply chain to further minimise price fluctuations.
One-third of all food produced is wasted. Food waste is not only about actual food being wasted. It is also about wasting land, water and other resources that go into production— wastage that we can scant afford in light of climate change.
Considering the underdevelopment of infrastructure in rural areas, and the time factor in getting produce from farms to the markets, evaporative cooling technology can also be a positive in mobile cold storage.
Beyond farm production sites, modified storage containers utilising evaporative cooling can be installed in transportation trucks to replace existing cold storage that requires higher capital investment. Extending evaporative cooling at the retail end in this way to cut down food waste also allows food to be stored for longer at much lower costs.
It is our belief that cutting food waste is a part and parcel of a comprehensive strategy to meet increasing food demands. It should be noted however that the proposed solution is not a panacea to cold storage problems.
In the event of transportation infrastructure disruptions, food can be offloaded elsewhere without incurring additional refrigeration costs. The produce can be sold at cost or below to minimise losses and reduce wastage. This will benefit lower income groups in particular and adds a social responsibility component for the food industry.
The Importance Of A Green Solution For Our Future
In ending, we stress the problems the world will face in terms of climate change, population increase and greater energy demands. Add to the mix inefficient cold storage systems in developing countries and the massive amounts of food being wasted. All of these should prompt us to find immediate solutions that not only reduce costs, but also in a manner that treads lightly on the planet.
In light of this we suggest that in addition to those in the food production industries, governments and venture capitalists should also consider providing seed funding to get such cold storage projects ‘off the ground,’ and investing in greater research and development in such technologies.
This is especially in terms of up scaling, to move beyond the existing use of evaporative cooling refrigeration in terms of optimal physical size, longer term storage, and more efficient materials to create an evaporative cooling ‘green’ cold storage version 2.0.