18 Jul 2015

Meeting the Global Food Crisis

There is a Food Crisis in our world - can it truly be met by sowing more crops, increasing farm level yields, to store that food in banks? These are among some topics I mooted when speaking on the subject at UK's House of Lords.

There ought to be no doubt that there exists a global food crisis! Across the world, 795 million people suffer from hunger - Hunger is defined as a painful sensation from want of food! This pain afflicts 525 million people in Asia, 215 million in Africa, 37 million in Latin America & Caribbean and others. Women form 60% of these numbers and a child dies every 10 seconds from hunger related inflictions.

What is notable, is that this food crisis is most prevalent in producing regions, areas that have a food surplus, not food shortage. The question is why? Why is it, the producing areas face more hunger?
The answer seems obvious … lack of logistics connectivity. This means the harvest from the farms is not appropriately delivered to the consumers. This lack of efficient delivery mechanism is a key factor for the gross loss of food, said to be 30% to 40% of what is produced globally. 
Hence, it is most surprising when global pundits propose that the answer to counter food insecurity, is to produce more, to raise farm level productivity. Produce more, to waste more?!? That does not appear to be a long term or holistic solution.

The real answer is glaringly obvious... to create more effective supply chain systems – logistics bridges between farms and urban demand centres. These bridges are the aggregating, handling and transport systems.

If we were to blindly raise the production, the inputs will increase, and if we continue to lose large amounts of what is produced, we will only end up wasting more resources, making the food more unaffordable, the chain more unsustainable. Farm level productivity is an outdated measure to apply for developing a full solution. 

In many parts of the world, science helped agriculture to produce more, and the result is a problem of plenty, essentially decoding into a concern of weak supply chains. Food delivered should be the end-aim of what is harvested, and this applies to grains as well as the more perishable fruits and vegetables. Food loss ought to be a factor in measuring productivity. Food security, readily defined as easy and affordable access to food, and producing larger amounts of food will not translate into more access or reach of food. The world needs to shift from traditional measures of farm level productivity to one of gainful productivity. 

The problem is more complicated in case of perishable foods. The highest loss of food occurs in the this sector, of high value foods, for which the cold-chain alone can serve as the conduit to consumers. Cold-chain is not merely about holding inventory in refrigeration but about buying a little time so as to reach far away markets. This time is best utilised in motion to cover more distances, to reach out to more consumers. It should therefore be viewed more as inventory under care, in motion.

Take India’s example, which has created the world’s largest footprint in cold stores. These service as platforms or staging areas for handling perishable goods and are in use for a few select crop types. These too have proved a success... Ireland’s potato, despite being a single season harvest, has become a staple thanks to these cold stores. However, the next step is to integrate the technology with the wider basket of farm produce, and this means developing refrigerated transport and pack-houses at source points. The job of pack-houses is to prepare and pre-condition the harvest to make the trip to market and the reefer transport is a key link in establishing this connectivity.

It is assessed, to meet the current demand for fruits and vegetables, almost 40% of future investment in India should optimally be in reefer transport and an equal amount in modern pack-houses at farm-gate. We would need, at a minimum, a six-fold increase in our reefer fleet along with pack-houses. This in turn creates near farm jobs, and the market connectivity creates right reasons to produce more.

India is proof of effective use of cold-chain and the high level of impact it has on populations. Eradicating polio was thanks to the cold-chain, and millions have benefited from other gainful uses such as in grapes, dairy, meats and fish sector. Another example of the impact that relevant food handling and care brings to farmers can be witnessed through the work done by the likes of Kaushalya Foundation in Bihar and the FPOs we are creating. Such enterprises bring value to thousands of small and marginal farmers. We understand the impact that cold-chain can make on people’s lives, as well the need for us to do much more with it.

Even so, India's cold-chain is ineffective in handling its surplus production and faces unnecessary food loss. India faces a problem of plenty and needs to optimise its food supply chain. On the other hand, the United Kingdom (UK) imports 45 to 50% of its food, relying on neighbouring countries including in Africa. This puts the UK in a precarious position, as any disruption on the supply side, will leave it in-sufficient and unable to fulfil its own demand. UK is sitting on a Food Crisis, should African countries decide to turn off the tap, or any inadvertent bottlenecks arise in their food source and supply chain. To avoid any unwanted disruption for its citizens, this country needs to invest closely at the source of its food supply. Either way, food interlinks countries and across the world, its availability is the prime driver of urbanisation.

Global collaboration for solving the food delivery chain, is not just to the gain of agri-based economies, but will also to the benefit of industrial regions that depend on far-away sources for their food. Just like India has enacted the Food Security Bill, many other high producing areas will shift priority towards their own citizens. This will impact on the supply and the cost of food into the non-producing regions. Simply put, global collaboration towards improving and expanding the reach of the food logistics chain has significant strategic impact for both developed and developing nations.

At the same time, we need to keep in mind the environment impact as we increase the range of logistics assets. Solving the food crisis should not lead to more pollution and an environment crisis. Today on the environment front, the producing areas have lower per capita carbon emissions and have a far more favourable ecological footprint than others. For comparison, India has an ecological footprint of 0.91 gha/person and UK’s footprint is 4.89 gha/person. It means that almost 5 planet earths are needed to sustain the life style of the United Kingdom.
To be future ready, technologies that will keep the food logistics chain green need to be consciously supported. India stays conscious and is making more efforts to retain a minimal or zero negative impact on the environment.
The modern food supply chain owes its existence to cold-chain technologies, and looking into the future, there is clearly a greater need for the same. Being key to food supply systems, the cold-chain sector has a larger responsibility and should not limit itself merely to temperature control, but also understand the energy and resource savings it brings to the total food supply chain. There is a need for a wider approach, taking onus across the total value chain system – in energy, environment and the economy.

While humankind had its first turning point when it learnt to harness the power of fire, today we have reached our next tipping point. To continue to feed our growing numbers, to sustain our civilisation, we need to learn to harness the power of cold, better than ever.

The global food crisis is countered by smart food supply systems - by ensuring the food we produce reaches gainful end-use. This will bring down wastage of natural resources, alleviate food insecurity globally and will also, automatically, feed farm productivity. To avoid cities from becoming a bottleneck unto themselves, we need far more attention, more science and development in the delivery mechanism, than the erstwhile focus on only producing more. A smart food supply system is not one that passes on the pain onto the weakest link in the chain, but one that alleviates risks and is inclusive in approach.
The future approach is to build effective conduits to bridge the distance between farms and consumers. It is not merely the science of efficient storage, but scientific delivery of food. Better, safer, faster connectivity is key to the solution.

"Extracts of the talk by Pawanexh Kohli at a debate event in the UK House of Lords."

Pawanexh Kohli at House of Lords Pawanexh Kohli speaking at House of Lords
Chairperson - The Right Hon'ble the Baroness Northover
In the House of Lords, 14-July-2015 
The event was chaired by The Right Hon'ble Baroness Lindsey Northover, the Lords Spokesperson for Department for International Development and for Women & Equalities.

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