“Greening” the Cold Chain

067To start, some good news:  Awareness of the scale of the global food waste problem and its related social and environmental externalities is on the rise, and educational efforts are beginning to follow.  National Geographic’s eight-month series on feeding the world has been a great aid in raising awareness on food waste and food security issues, along with excellent papers from organizations like the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (examples here and here) and the World Resources Institute (example here) and the pioneering work by individuals such as Tristram Stuart and his Feeding the 5K organization.

Raising awareness of food waste is critical and there will be need for continued efforts in this regard for a long time.  Yet the key for real advancement lies in translating awareness into action, and that hinges on several factors such as 1) government policies to provide incentives for food waste reduction (such as banning organics from landfills), 2) the creation of a global network focused on driving collaborative and innovative ways to reduce food waste in both developed and less developed regions, and 3) organizations recognizing (and creating) business opportunities in food waste and — more broadly — food security.  Feeding nine billion global citizens by 2050 in a sustainable manner is a massive challenge, but it is also a massive opportunity for companies that wish to gain long-term competitive advantage in their business segments.  Businesses that embrace this opportunity through innovation and effective partnerships will be the change leaders of the next several decades, profiting handsomely while simultaneously helping to reduce hunger and improve the environment.

A great example of moving from awareness to action is being demonstrated by UTC’s Carrier Corporation, which hosted its World Cold Chain Summit to Reduce Food Waste in London last week.  Carrier brought together thought leaders from industry, academia, and government to highlight the problem of food waste in both developed and less developed regions and to advance discussion of opportunities within the cold chain to reduce it.  As Carrier’s sustainability leaders noted, our goal is to “create the road map for harnessing the power of the cold chain to help feed more people, more efficiently, and more sustainably.”  Well said.  The company sees the need to reduce food waste to enhance global food security.  It also sees the business  opportunity linked to this problem and is addressing it through technology, education, research, and partnerships.

Carrier’s effort increases my optimism that we are on the verge of a tipping point related to collaborative global action on food waste; action which should be spearheaded by corporations.  The business opportunity is especially clear for an organization such as Carrier which focuses on heating/cooling and commercial & transport refrigeration systems.  A significant portion of global food waste, particularly that which occurs in less developed regions, stems from inadequate refrigeration capability and poor transportation infrastructure.  Much food is lost from harvest to market as producers lack the ability to safely and efficiently store and transport their products to consumers.  Such losses often occur in regions of the world where the need for food is extreme — so they are especially painful.  Further, much of the world’s population growth in the next 35 years will emanate from less developed regions in warm climates.  Advances in cold chain storage and transportation capabilities are therefore essential to providing global food security.  Innovations that expand cold chain capability in an environmentally-friendly manner and that “work” in less developed regions (where energy sources are a challenge) are needed.  With two billion more citizens coming on line in the next 35 years, many of them with increased purchasing power, the need for optimizing food resources through an improved cold chain is indeed great.

As Tim Fox of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers noted at the Summit, there is growing recognition among supermarket chains that their customers want them to do something about food waste — and their efforts in this area will travel back through the supply chain to benefit less developed regions.  Carrier Corporation is jumping in to support that effort, and in so doing will undoubtedly develop new products, technologies, and relationships to ensure future business growth while also generating goodwill among future customers and inspiring employees.  Other corporations would be well-served to quickly follow Carrier’s lead and assess how their operations can contribute to reducing food waste and feeding the planet in a sustainable manner.

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