Cold Chain Complexities for Fruits & Vegetables in India

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India is one of the world’s largest producers of several fruits & vegetables. It is second only to China in terms of total production. It is the number one producer of mango, banana, okra and number two in potato & tomato. With a total production of about 270 million MT of fruits & vegetables, it even surpasses the combined volume of rice & wheat together. But if you look at the extent of processing, it processes just about 2% of the production, while for China it is 40%, US 65% & Malaysia 85%. Hence, most of the fruits & vegetable that is produced in India, is consumed in fresh form. 

The large quantity production is also associated with a very large quantity of wastage. 18% of India’s fruit and vegetable production – valued at Rs 13,300 crore – is wasted annually, as per the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET). The commodities contributing to major losses are grapes, apples, mango, potato, tomato and onion. Of these, potato, onion, tomato & mango alone contribute to an extent of 63%. While the reasons for losses are many, one of the simple & easiest explanations given is that the post-harvest losses are due to lack of the cold chain facilities in India. Some of the cold chain facts about India are as below:

  • According to industry estimates, approximately 104 million metric tons of perishables are transported between cities each year.
  • Of this figure, about 100 million metric tons move via non–reefer mode and only four million metric tons are transported by reefer.
  • Of this, the majority of the refrigerated vehicles (>80%) are utilized for milk and milk products transportation.
  • The percentage movement of fruits & vegetables through cold chain is negligible, while in USA it is around 80-85%, in Thailand 30-40%.

Now the million-dollar question is that despite the huge wastage, why is the cold chain engagement so low in India?  India with its diverse climate can produce any kind of fruits & vegetables at any point of time at some location or other. To cater to the fresh demand, the crops are grown around the year, but the production geographies keep changing as per the crop-climate requirements. Typically, any consumption point has to undergo 3-4 season/supply arrangements during a year for the same crop. From a perspective of logistics, simple transportation is a nightmare for such a situation, leave alone the cold chain. The cost of cold chain transportation becomes prohibitively higher (about 2/3 times) than ambient transport.

For fruits & vegetables, cold chain is not just bringing the temperature down but it also has to manage an entire range of the other parameters which could impact its life. Fruits & vegetables, in general, are live products & they continue to respire. There are a host of parameters like Humidity, Ethylene, Carbon dioxide, Oxygen & Nitrogen can impact the life of a particular item. Certain items may need multiple parameter management while many investments cannot be justified on the back of low product value. But for the products like apples which are single-season, such Controlled Atmosphere (C.A.) management is beneficial as it can improve the shelf life up to 10 months as against life of 2-3 months in ordinary cold store.

Building cold chain for fruits & vegetables is not just adding fleets of reefer trucks or adding cold store capacities. There is a lot of technology involved in managing & maintaining the temperature & other parameters. The existing cold chain industry has to transform into more reliable, capable & technically competent. The standards and practices have to be evolved & percolated down, even to the levels of truck drivers.

Any cold chain for fruits & vegetables has to be a viable cold link between farmers & consumers. Both the production centers & consumption points need to be planned for appropriate crop, season, price, quality & freight. The cold chain must appreciate the product shelf-life, storage requirements, demand & supply situation. These can provide price stability, reduce volatility& wastage which would benefit both consumer & farmers, but these will come at a cost. The consumers should be willing to pay for the additional cost required to manage the cold chain, least these cannot be sustained.

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