Agriculture is the backbone of the Indian economy, employing almost half its workforce – over 250 million people; the majority though are subsistence farmers with a couple of acres. In 2016, Prime Minister Modi, declared “I wish to double the income of farmers by 2022 when India will celebrate 75 years of its independence”.
To deliver Modi’s target, it is hard to overstate the importance of the cold chain – an integrated and seamless network of refrigerated pack houses, distribution hubs and vehicles used to maintain the safety, quality and quantity of food, while moving it swiftly from farm gate to consumption centre. Just 4% of India’s food is moved through the cold chain compared to 70% in the UK. For some crops as much as 40% of the harvest is estimated to be lost between farm and market.
Cold chains don’t just reduce post-harvest food loss, but also allow farmers to earn more by maintaining the quality of their produce, and selling it further afield. The same lettuce that sells for three rupees at the farm gate in Haryana state can fetch 100 rupees in downtown Delhi – but only if the farmer can get it there in the same condition as one imported by air-freight from a highly developed global agri-business and cold chain.
But it is vital that any new cold chain infrastructure should be clean – zero-emission and powered by renewable energy. India can ill-afford any further increase in CO2 and emissions from conventional diesel-powered cooling; its outdoor air pollution is already thought to cause almost 3,300 premature deaths per day. To double farmers’ income by expanding the use of conventional, highly polluting cold chain technologies would simply mitigate one problem by worsening another.
India has set ambitious environmental targets for its agriculture, its government wants new cold chains that are both economic and sustainable. The UK is at the forefront of developing clean cold technology from solar-powered cold storage to liquid nitrogen transport refrigeration. International collaboration – global science, local solutions – can help India leapfrog to new clean cold chains.
The challenge and the opportunity are huge. India has less than 1% of the packing houses and 15% of the refrigerated transport required today. These are the ‘missing links’ needed to connect farmers to consumption centres says India’s National Centre for Cold-chain Development. It estimates that to build cold chains to marry India’s current food production and consumption requires investment of some $15 billion.
The UK should work with India to establish a series of Clean Cold Chain Centres to hasten the development of this vital infrastructure. This would generate big opportunities for UK clean tech businesses as well as the wider social and environmental benefits. But it isn’t enough to simply demonstrate that each of the new clean cold technologies works individually. Instead we need to demonstrate the clean cold chain connecting farm to consumption centre, rather than as a series of isolated facilities.
And it is not just technology; social sciences and economics are key. We must help design new business models and credit schemes that will make the clean cold chain viable for Indian farmers with an average farm size of less than two acres. Banks often demand urban property as collateral for loans, which most small farmers do not possess. If granted, the interest on a loan for cooling equipment currently may be 12.5% compared to 4% for a tractor. If we are going to have the solutions that have the greatest chance of being adopted, and not simply a graveyard for technology demonstrations, the centres need to bring together the key groups – farmers, local and national governments, technology developers, investors, bankers and manufacturers – under one organisational roof. The centres will offer training; design, test apps for new trading platforms to connect farmers to markets; and act as a magnet to attract young entrepreneurs to the rural opportunity.
Indian agriculture has been transformed since independence in 1947 through the ‘green revolution’, which staved off famine by dramatically increasing crop yields, and the ‘white revolution’, which turned India into the world’s largest milk producer. To reach its full economic potential, Indian agriculture urgently needs a third revolution: the ‘cool’ revolution to build efficient market links through a sustainable clean cold chain. It is hard to overstate the importance of this, apparently narrow technical issue, to achieving India’s environmental, economic and social goals.
The report, entitled ‘India’s Third Agricultural Revolution – Doubling farmers’ incomes through clean cold chains’ published today (28th June 2017) follows a study tour and workshop led by the University of Birmingham’s Energy Institute, with help from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Trade, the state government of Haryana, and India’s National Centre for Cold-chain Development. The two day workshop was attended by almost 100 Indian delegates, comprising farmers, technologists, academics, financial experts and government officials.
Professor Toby Peters, Professor, Cold Economy, University of Birmingham