Food Foolish

Hunger, food security, climate emissions and water shortages are anything but foolish topics, yet the way we systematically waste food in the face of these challenges is one of humankind’s unintended but most foolish practices.

Food Foolish: The Hidden Connection Between Food Waste, Hunger and Climate Change, a 182-page paperback book co-authored by John Mandyck, Chief Sustainability Officer for United Technologies Building & Industrial Systems, and Eric Schultz, former Chairman and CEO of Sensitech (both pictured below), a United Technologies company specialising in cold chain monitoring and visibility, was written to call attention to the extraordinary social and environmental opportunities created by wasting less food. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 4, named ‘Enter the Cold Chain’.

When the Cold Chain Works
Turek Farm is the third largest vegetable farm in the state of New York and a top 10 grower nationally of sweet corn. David, Frank Jr. and Jason Turek also grow squash, pumpkins, cabbage and green beans on 4,000 acres of rain-fed farmland. Everything grown is perishable and each product will make its way successfully to market up and down the U.S. East Coast if, and only if, the company’s carefully managed cold chain does its part. “A lot of people can make a decent crop,” says Jason Turek. “Getting it to market safely can be a challenge.”

Of course, Jason is being modest. Farmers like the Tureks face everything from national competition, inferior seed and pests to drought and flood. “Even the weather has become more extreme,” adds Jason, feeling the effects of climate change. “Normal is now the average between two extremes.” Waste can begin at the moment a seed is planted; if it happens to be a half-inch deeper than those around it, the vegetable might ripen too late to be harvested with the rest of the crop. With so many obstacles to profitable farming, so much investment at stake each season, and increasing demands from retailers, the need to preserve healthy produce once harvested is paramount. This requires a robust, unbroken cold chain.

“Sweet corn quality can be lost overnight without refrigeration,” says Frank Turek Jr., and “it’ll taste like cardboard.” 33 Consequently, once picked, corn on the Tureks’ farm is quickly packed and cooled to about 4.4°C/40°F. From there it’s moved to refrigerated storage, onto refrigerated trucks (with a covering of ice on each truckload to preserve moisture), and eventually to a refrigerated retail distribution center. If all goes well, an ear of Turek sweet corn won’t rise much above 4.4°C/40°F until it reaches the shelves of a grocery store.

Having a seamless cold chain is the only way the Tureks can preserve freshness and shelf life of their products, ensure food safety, and meet the specifications of retailers. It is the only way their product can delight customers. And perhaps most importantly, their investment in a modern cold chain is the only way to reduce food waste, a spectre that haunts farmers – even those with access to the best agricultural inputs and equipment available – from the moment they plant seed in the ground. Despite decades of success and a strong brand, Jason says, “We’re only as good as our last order.”

The Broader Food Supply Chain
Not all foods need to be handled quite as carefully as vegetables, fruits, dairy and meat. But all food is perishable and subject to loss.

Take the example of grains, which provide the world with over one-half its calories and are an important source of feed for livestock. In 2012 the World Bank and FAO studied the “grain chain” of wheat imports to Arab countries. 34 This subtropical region is the largest net importer of cereal calories in the world, buying about 56 per cent of what they consume.

When cereal prices are volatile or supply is at risk, food security in the Arab world can become an issue of national security.

Like fruits and vegetables, an efficient supply chain for wheat can lower the cost of the product to consumers and reduce waste. The World Bank study found that wheat losses in Arab countries were as much as five per cent, leading some nations to import more than they needed.36 Inefficiencies varied by country but included long ship turnaround times in port, idle trucks and mills, long transit times due to poor roads, poor handling systems, spillage, spoilage, pilferage and limited or outdated storage capacity. The average time from unloading at the port to bulk storage at the flour mill in 2009 was 78 days in Arab countries compared with 47 days in South Korea and 18 days in the Netherlands.37 The study suggested a number of possible improvements. It also highlighted that even when a food product like cereal does not have the perishability of bananas, it still travels a complicated supply chain that requires investment and expertise to function optimally.

A similar study of the supply chain for grain in sub-Saharan Africa found losses from farm to processing could range from 10 to 20 per cent. Some losses resulted from harvesting methods, handling procedures, types of storage, pests or pathogens. Sometimes the supply chain was impeded by mismanagement or political problems.38 In total, such losses are devastating.

Research suggests that post-harvest losses in sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade exceeded the total food aid received by that region and could have fed an additional 48 million people. Given these findings, some experts now believe that investments in reducing post-harvest losses are “quick impact interventions” for enhancing food security.

The truth is, every food supply chain is simply some variation of the cold chain. All perishables need to be shielded from temperature and moisture extremes. The sooner they are consumed after harvest or slaughter, the safer, more appetizing and more nutritious they tend to be. Companies and countries that have become skilled at moving meats, dairy, fruits and vegetables – protecting their “traveling bananas” – are well on their way to reducing needless loss and enhancing their total food security.

The Sustainable Cold Chain
Even great benefits come with some cost, and expanding the cold chain is not without its trade-offs. The refrigerated trucks, trailers, shipping containers, warehouses and retail displays that comprise the cold chain all require energy and are a source of global hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant emissions. Fortunately, as the cold chain evolves and expands, so too do the technologies available to reduce its environmental footprint. In particular, advances are being made in non-ozone depleting, low global warming and natural refrigerants, fuel reduction technologies for road transportation systems, and improved recyclable materials.

Kevin Fay is Executive Director of the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, an organisation focused on industry participation in the development of International and U.S. government policies regarding ozone protection and climate change. Under the Alliance, member companies and others have committed US$5 billion over the next decade to research, develop, and commercialise low global warming potential technologies.

Fay is also the Executive Director of the new Global Food Cold Chain Council. “We’re making great progress in greening the cold chain,” Fay says. “We’re using a broader base of refrigerants and placing a greater reliance on things like information technology that are focused on helping cold chain equipment perform more efficiently. There has been a tremendous advance in the development and efficiency of cold chain equipment.”

The Global Food Cold Chain Council is a promising example of how the private sector can play a leading role in innovating climate-sustainable technologies that advance a sustainable cold chain. Announced by a coalition of major companies at the special United Nations Climate Summit 2014, the council works with partners in the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to develop and implement broad-based public and private sector collaborative solutions to reduce HFC emissions in the cold chain across developed and developing countries.

A sustainable cold chain and its impact on food waste is now poised to change the climate conversation. “The initial focus on greening the cold chain started with improving refrigerants,” Fay says. “That led to consideration of the energy efficiency issues around the entire cold chain, which are much more important over the life of the equipment. Subsequently, this led us to the issue of food waste. The cold chain has the ability to significantly reduce food waste in processing, transport and retail,” Fay adds. “So our efforts started as a focus on refrigerant usage but have now broadened to energy efficiency and beyond that to significantly reduce food waste by additional reliance on cold chain technology.” 

Retail refrigeration is one link in the cold chain making significant moves away from traditional HFC direct expansion systems to embrace natural or low global warming refrigerant technologies. Retailers are leading the way. CO2 as a refrigerant for supermarkets and convenience stores is economical, environmentally sustainable, safe and energy-efficient. Legislation is helping drive adoption, with countries like Denmark taxing HFC use and Germany providing direct financial incentives for using low global warming refrigerants. In other cases, consumer pressure and environmental groups have driven adoption. Research indicates that among European food retailers, 69 per cent have an enterprise or group-level strategy to encourage carbon footprint reduction, and more than half would reduce normal investment cycles to promote the use of more environmentally balanced refrigeration technology.

In the U.S., the public and private sectors joined forces in September 2014 around a series of commitments designed to reduce the cumulative consumption of greenhouse gases by the equivalent of 700 million metric tons of CO2 by 2025—the same as taking nearly 15 million cars off the road for 10 years.

Fay cites the willingness and ability of the world’s large developing countries to embrace modern cold chain technology as critical to the growth of a sustainable cold chain. “On the equipment side, we’ve got traction throughout the developed country economies,” he says. “That’s rapidly spreading to the large developing country economies such as India, China and Brazil. This has been our initial focus, on the equipment side. There’s been a great deal of history and a great deal of success in dealing with technology transfers that are both environmentally protective and economically sensible. Our efforts,” Fay adds, “are to build on that successful process. What’s happening now is the transition from just an equipment focus to the much broader issues associated with food waste.”

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