Food chain

UN calls for investment in sustainable cold food chains

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Developing countries could save 144 million tonnes of food annually if they reached the same level of food cold chain infrastructure as richer nations, according to a UN report.

In the face of rising global food insecurity and global warming, two UN agencies have published a report urging governments, international development partners and industry to invest in sustainable food cold chains to decrease hunger, provide livelihoods to communities, and adapt to climate change.

Launched during COP27, the global climate summit taking place in Egypt, the report is the result of work by the Sustainable Food Cold Chains initiative from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 

“At a time when the international community must act to address the climate and food crises, sustainable food cold chains can make a massive difference,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director.

“They allow us to reduce food loss, improve food security, slow greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs, reduce poverty and build resilience – all in one fell swoop.”

More than three billion people globally cannot afford a healthy diet at present, with a lack of effective refrigeration directly resulting in the loss of an estimated 526 million tonnes of food a year, equivalent to 12 per cent of total production, the report found. 

Its authors stress that food cold chains are critical to meeting the challenge of feeding an additional two billion people by 2050 and harnessing rural communities’ resilience while avoiding increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The report further states that developing countries could save 144 million tons of food annually, if they were able to reach the same level of food cold chain infrastructure as richer nations.

Sustainable food cold chains can also make an important difference in efforts to achieve UN the sustainable development goals (SDGs), according to FAO director general Dongyu Qu.

“All stakeholders can help implement the findings of this report, to transform agrifood systems to be more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable – for better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life for all, leaving no one behind,” he said.

The report also highlights the benefits that an adequate food cold chain could bring to tackling climate change.

According to the agencies, emissions from food loss and waste due to lack of refrigeration totalled around one gigatonne of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2017, or roughly two per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, food loss also increases the unnecessary conversion of land for agricultural purposes, as well as the use of water, fossil fuels and energy.

Overall, the food cold chain is responsible for around 4 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions when emissions from cold chain technologies and food loss caused by lack of refrigeration are included.

Reducing food loss and waste could make a positive impact on climate change, the report says, but only if new infrastructure is designed that uses gases with low global warming potential.

This has been the case in countries like India, where a pilot project of a sustainable food cold chain reduced kiwi fruit losses of 76 per cent while reducing emissions through the expansion of the use of refrigerated transport.

In Nigeria, a project to install 54 operational ColdHubs prevented the spoilage of 42,024 tonnes of food and increased the household income of 5,240 small-scale farmers, retailers and wholesalers by 50 per cent.

In order to create these sustainable cold food chains, the UN agencies have presented a list of recommendations countries can enforce, which include quantifying and benchmarking the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in existing food cold chains, collaborating and undertaking food cold chain needs assessments an implementing and enforcing ambitious minimum efficiency standards, and monitoring and enforcement to prevent illegal imports of inefficient food cold chain equipment and refrigerants.

Food scarcity was already a topic of conversation during the 2021 climate summit in Glasgow (COP26), when experts advised delegates to be more environmentally conscious about their food choices.

Last summer, researchers from Rutgers University found that food insecurity would be much deadlier than any nuclear blasts, in the event of a nuclear conflict. 

In light of the risks that come with global food scarcity, scientists are working to develop innovative solutions.  In August, Michigan State University researchers devised a composite resin suitable for making wind turbine blades that could someday be recycled into sweets, while scientists at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) designed a method for 3D-printing food that could bring alternative protein sources including algae, plants and insects to the mainstream.

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