Sustainable food cold chains: Opportunities, challenges and the way forward


Of the total food produced for human consumption, an estimated  14 per cent is lost, and an estimated 17 per cent is wasted, costing the global economy an estimated $936 billion a year.  The lack of effective refrigeration is a leading contributor to this challenge, directly resulting in the loss of 526 million tons of food production, or 12 per cent of the global total, in 2017. This is enough to feed an estimated 1 billion people in a world where currently 811 million people are hungry and 3 billion are unable to afford a healthy diet .

The unavailability of robust food cold chains to maintain the quality, nutritional value and safety of food products has ramifications for people’s health. A food cold chain is an integrated temperature-controlled food distribution system that ensures that perishable produce and/or temperature-sensitive products are kept at their optimum temperature and environment, from source to destination. It is a complex system that has many static and moving elements and that requires accountability from multiple levels, including farmers, aggregators, processors and manufacturers, distributors, retailers and consumers.

Populations in most developing countries depend heavily on agriculture for their livelihoods,  making the development of food cold chains a powerful tool to boost incomes and foster economic growth.  Food loss during the postharvest period reduces the income of 470 million smallholder farmers by as much as 15 per cent.

This report highlights the complexity of food cold chain development globally and explores how it can evolve to become more sustainable.  The main objectives of the analysis are to provide an overview of the status, drivers and implications of food cold chains globally; to describe the benefits of sustainable food cold chains; to identify the key drivers, barriers and opportunities in moving towards them; and to showcase existing technologies, projects, finance and business models, and policies, both locally and internationally. The report concludes with recommendations for a comprehensive systems approach to accelerate action and to foster cooperation among the diverse actors to advance more sustainable food cold chains globally.

Over the long term, achieving a sustainable food cold chain will require a shift in how we approach cold chain development away from linear to circular by understanding interconnected and dynamic relationships, and feedback loops within the whole system, as highlighted in the recommendations.

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This resource has been peer reviewed