India’s Push for Cold Chain Technology 

1 July 2024 - // Interviews
Dr. Sachin Kumar
Director, Industry, Buildings & Cooling

Interview with Dr. Sachin Kumar, Director at Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation 

The loss of agricultural produce due to inadequate cold chain infrastructure in India contributes to food insecurity, greenhouse gas emissions and wasted water, labor and energy.

Boosting the capacity of mobile and static cold chain technology can address these issues and generate millions of new jobs. To dig into the details of the issue, REVOLVE spoke to Dr. Sachin Kumar, Director at the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation.  

Why is cold chain technology important for India’s food security? 

Food and energy security rank as top priorities for India, and this has been ​​​​marked by a series of policy measures taken by the government to address the challenges in a sustainable manner. We are all aware that climate change poses challenges to India’s food security, with the nation grappling with erratic cycles of drought and flooding.

While India is experiencing slightly above-average rainfall, the variability in precipitation across regions can lead to agricultural uncertainties. Additionally, the current gap in terms of an integrated cold chain network amplifies this challenge and can result in loss of substantial quantity of farm produce.  

A major share of fruit and vegetable loss occurs between farms and mandis (markets), where inadequate packhouses with precooling capacity, deficient transport facilities, and breakages in cold chain each account for 10-20%, 20-25%, and 10-15% of losses, respectively1. These losses have a negative impact not just on the environment, contributing 8-10% towards annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also on food security including wasted labor, water, energy, land, and other inputs. Food loss can result in doubling of fruit and vegetable prices and a 50% price rise of milk. 

Clear Glass Jars With Assorted Foods. Photo: NEOSiAM 2024+ / Pexels.

To reduce this food loss, there is a need to build a large capacity of mobile and static cold chain infrastructure ensuring that the new capacity addition is energy efficient, deploys environment-friendly refrigerant, and utilizes the capacity to an optimum level. India’s awareness of the socioeconomic benefits that cold chains offer to both rural and urban populations is evident through its emphasis on sustainable cold chain system development, ongoing initiatives by the National Centre of Cold Chain Development, and support provided by national and sub-national governments to the private sector, entrepreneurs, and farmer associations.  

What are the challenges in adopting this technology in a country like India? 

Presently there exist substantial gaps in the cold chain capacity in India and as per the estimates by a World Bank study, around 4% of fresh produce is covered by the existing cold chains1. The study further mentions that the market potential and investment opportunity in the cold chain and refrigeration sector will be $29 billion by 2038, and the sector has the potential to create 1.7 million jobs.  

While the infrastructure capacity for agricultural produce has grown over the past few years, integrated development of the entire cold chain has been inadequate resulting in food losses. To build the desired cold chain capacity in the country it is critical to address the barriers related to the fragmented nature of the sector, limited potential for upfront investments, and inadequate supporting infrastructure such as roads and power supply.  

The market potential and investment opportunity in the cold chain and refrigeration sector will be $29 billion by 2038, and the sector has the potential to create 1.7 million jobs. 

There is also a need to better understand the availability of existing cold chain capacities on ground, their energy consumption profile, refrigerant utilization and potential for transition to low global warming (GWP) variants, capacity building needs, mapping food loss hot spots in the country, and logistics management, among other considerations. At Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, development of sustainable and integrated cold value chain in the country is a focus area of intervention.  

Shakti is contributing to a study that is being carried out for the National Center for Cold Chain Development (NCCD) to examine the existing infrastructure and energy transition opportunities for cold chains in India. The study aims to understand the current situation (design, operation, practices, technology, etc.) of the cold chain with a walk-through analysis of select clusters of high value horticulture produce across the country and a deep dive in a few of these clusters. It is expected that the output of this study will help NCCD in developing appropriate interventions to develop energy efficient and sustainable cold chain sector in the ​​country.  

What are some of the ways India can already transition to better cooling mechanisms for food security? Are there alternatives to cold chain we can explore? 

India can transition to better cooling mechanisms by investing in more energy-efficient and sustainable cold chain networks. Considering the policy push on developing renewable energy capacity in the country, it is pertinent to focus attention on integrating renewable energy in existing and new cold chain capacities. Additionally, resources should be deployed towards making both existing cold chain infrastructure energy-efficient and transportation management more effective.  

Attention should also be paid to increase accessibility of cold chain infrastructure for farmers to reduce food loss and ensure a more reliable supply of fresh produce for consumption. It is also important to have better coordinated collaboration between different government agencies at national and sub-national levels, industry associations, and research institutions to plan, develop, and implement appropriate policies and interventions that promote the adoption of advanced cooling technologies while addressing the challenge of cost-effectiveness and scalability.  

By prioritizing innovation and sustainability in the cooling sector, India can enhance its food security efforts. 

India can certainly play a pivotal role in the global south region by addressing food security challenges and effectively deploying innovative cooling solutions at scale in the sector. 

In exploring alternatives to the traditional cold chain approach, businesses and industries can consider various innovative strategies to preserve the quality of perishable goods. For example, use of thermal energy storage systems, which leverage materials with high heat capacity to maintain optimal product temperatures without relying solely on continuous refrigeration, could be explored.  

Additionally, advancements in packaging technologies, such as vacuum insulation panels and phase change materials, offer new possibilities for extending shelf life and reducing reliance on energy-intensive cooling methods. Implementing sensor-based monitoring systems and real-time data analytics can also enable more precise temperature control throughout the supply chain, ensuring that products remain within safe storage conditions at all times.  

Can India take the lead in better cooling for food security in the Global South and lead by example? 

India has already ​taken​​ ​the lead in this domain by developing the India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP) in 2019 that focuses on holistic development of the cooling sector in the country by 2037-2038. This was the first of its kind cooling plan developed by a country that has emphasized all the sectors that need cooling, including built space, cold value chain, transport, research and development (R&D) needs, and capacity building aspects.  

Through strategic partnerships with national governments and international organizations for sharing of knowledge and best practices, learning from successful interventions, India can certainly play a pivotal role in the global south region by addressing food security challenges and effectively deploying innovative cooling solutions at scale in the sector. 

Discover Sustainable India
Dr. Sachin Kumar
Director, Industry, Buildings & Cooling

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