Amid criticisms of waste, industrialised farming and excessive packaging, it’s easy to forget how amazing modern food systems are.
From the moment a fish is plucked from the sea, a chicken is slaughtered or a pint of milk is squirted from a cow, to the moment it lands on our dining tables, it is cosseted.
From farm to fork, it flows through an unbroken chain of cold spaces - refrigerated trucks, warehouses, supermarket shelves and freezer bags - that keep it at its prime. Sealed packaging keeps out air and stops spoilage. Rigorous hygiene standards keep contamination at bay. Pasteurisation, chlorine and preservatives kill germs before they cause us any harm.
This represents a huge if largely invisible infrastructure that sustains our standard of living, just as much as roads or railways do.
Because while this sophisticated system works well and supplies healthy and hygienic food in the Global North, the same is not true worldwide.
In much of the world, the cold chain has gaps, and sometimes barely functions at all.
In India, much of the nation’s fish comes from large-scale farming in the wetlands of Andhra Pradesh. The farming is efficient and has seen huge increases in production over recent decades. But fanning out from the farms on the banks of Lake Kolleru, hundreds of trucks carry the fish thousands of miles to wholesale markets and then to consumers.
The trucks are open and unrefrigerated.
Polystyrene boxes, tarpaulins and mounds of ice prevent the worst of spoilage, but are no match for the hot climate. Wholesale markets don’t have refrigerators. Nor do local shops and traders.
The impact on quality is plain to see.
For many livestock herders of East Africa, milk is not considered a lucrative commodity for sale. Rather, it’s a source of daily sustenance for the family. Those who improve feeding and milking methods can cash in on the surplus but the majority of milk is sold raw, locally and unrefrigerated. Making yogurt, cheese or sour milk is not unheard of but far from the norm.
The result is of course lower quality food for consumers. But lack of temperature control, processing and packaging has other effects too. It restricts farmers’ access to more distant markets and increases prices for consumers.
It also increases food waste: while consumers throw away far more uneaten food in the developed world than in developing countries — reflective of how food is a far more precious commodity in low-income countries — the scale of losses in farms, transport, processing and retail in the developing world are similar to the supposedly wasteful developed world.
We’re interested in the importance of cold chain, processing and packaging in the food supply chain, and the opportunities for innovation to solve the problems here. We looked into it as part of our research project on innovation in aquaculture (fish farming) in India and Bangladesh last year. It also emerged from this year’s Challenges of Our Era Summit as a priority area for future challenge prizes.
One avenue to explore is to incentivise innovations that prevent losses and improve value of perishable goods in East Africa. Rethinking refrigeration could be a major driving force behind improving livelihoods and making sure more food ends up on a plate than in the bin.