Scientists and engineers in the UK are working to use ideas from advanced space technology to improve the lives of farmers and reduce food waste in developing countries.
Due to a warmer climate and a lack of technology, expertise and infrastructure, up to 40% of food in developing countries can be wasted, with much of this waste being fresh produce. This is because the farmers are unable to insulate and cool or refrigerate produce after it is harvested – and on the journey between the farm and the consumer, the food can become spoiled.
A research team, led by Dr Sonal Choudhary of the University of Sheffield, is working on utilising the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) expertise in space science and cryogenics, thermal engineering and analysing large datasets to improve the efficiency of the cold food supply chain in India and so reduce the amount of waste, both in terms of food and energy. The project is being undertaken as part of STFC’s Food Network+ research programme.
UK expertise in cryogenics, the science of extremely cold temperatures, and of thermal engineering could hold the key to bolstering the food chain by reducing the amount of loss from farm-to-fork and by doing so, helping farmers raise their income.
Dr Choudhary said: “There are a number of practical and logistical challenges for farmers in developing countries. Once they have harvested the fruit or vegetables, how can they keep it fresh before it reaches the consumer? They are often unable to afford refrigerated vehicles, and rely solely on traditional methods such as transporting the produce through open trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles and even bicycles. Given the ambient temperature of 40-45oC in many parts of India, a good thermal insulation along with cryogenics technology could provide us with a viable option to reduce food loss from farm-to-fork and improve the cold chain efficiency.”
Dr Bryan Shaughnessy is head of the Thermal Engineering Group at STFC RAL Space and also a participant in this project. “We design systems to withstand the harsh extremes of temperature in space. By taking the technology and expertise we apply in developing instruments for use in space missions and instead looking at how to apply it in assisting in keeping food cooler in warm climates I believe we have an opportunity here to find fairly low cost solutions to what can be a very expensive problem…”
Dr Choudhary added: “Thanks to the STFC Food Network+ we have the chance to work with experts in cryogenics, thermal engineering and data science, alongside stakeholders from the supply chain to really iron out some of the logistical challenges and get one step closer to making this solution a reality.”
The project has been funded by the STFC Food Network+, which brings together researchers from STFC and different disciplines in the agri-food sector with the aim of solving some of the world’s greatest food sustainability challenges.
The team have utilised participatory workshops and focus groups to predict any challenges in implementing STFC space science and technologies in India, where the gaps in the infrastructure exist, and what interventions are needed at different stages of the food supply chain from farmers to retailers and end consumers.
“We have met with farmers, retailers, academics, government officials and other invested parties to try to really understand the issues the sector faces and to come up with ways to meet those challenges. Early studies have shown that it is certainly possible to increase farmers’ livelihood by decreasing food loss from farm-to-fork,” Dr Choudhary said, “Now we need to demonstrate how this could be achieved at a low budget utilising STFC space science and technologies.”
The team is made up of both academia and industry, with representatives from the Sheffield University Management School (SUMS), Hull University Business School (HUBS), STFC’s RAL Space and commercial cryogenics firm Cryox.