Samit leads conceptualization and development of new products at Pluss Advanced Technologies. With a belief that energy efficiency, access and affordability are going to be key for a sustainable world, Samit has led Pluss’s initiatives towards development of energy storage materials and their applications. At Pluss, Samit also leads innovations in energy storage materials for buildings, as part of the ‘Partnership to Advance Clean Energy – Research’ (PACE-R) funded by the Government of India and the US Department of Energy, with CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning & Technology) in India and Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in the US as partners.
“We have two or three times the amount of food right now that is needed to feed the number of people in the world,” Joshua Muldavin, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, USA.
The absence of adequate infrastructure and alternate processing facilities to manage post-harvest produce have led to dwindling farmer incomes, extensive wastage of food and unstable food accessibility for over one billion people across the world. According to a report by United Nations, 852 million of the over one billion who go hungry reside in low- and middle- income countries such as India. In August this year, farmers in Aurangabad and Nashik districts of Maharashtra dumped heaps of tomatoes on the road after prices collapsed to ₹2-3 per kg in the wholesale market, even though there were getting sold for ₹25-30 kg in the retail market in urban centres. This is an example of farmers who either dump their farm produce or engage in distress selling in the market, when they cannot afford the cost of taking their produce back with them. At a global level, post-harvest wastage is estimated at 30% of the total production.
The fulcrum of the problem here is to provide farmers with solutions to keep agricultural produce in an acceptable state, from harvest until the time they are able to sell them at the local mandi, as poor handling and storage of agricultural commodities can result in quality deterioration and monetary losses. Additionally, as compared to grains, vegetables and fruit products need to be handled cautiously to maximise their shelf life. Weather, access to markets and storage spaces play a significant role in determining the shelf life of these perishable products.
The conundrum of post-harvest produce wastage in developing nations can be alleviated by adequate cold storage facilities, proper infrastructure like accessible roads, as well as alternate technologies to utilise excess food optimally, which will lead to increased farmer incomes.
Agricultural commodities are susceptible to even the slightest of temperature changes and tend to get spoiled, thereby making temperature-controlled cold storage spaces imperative to bring down post-harvest decay in them. Conventional cold rooms are relatively expensive to build and need uninterrupted electric supply. Cold rooms based on ‘phase change material’ technology can cost-effectively fulfil the purpose of refrigeration, allowing farmers to preserve their produce.
A ‘phase change material’ works on the principle of energy storage and release. It releases or absorbs heat when it undergoes a transition in a state such as liquid to solid or vice versa. For example, water becomes ice on absorbing the cold from its environment (say, a freezer where the water’s ambient temperature is below 0°C). When the ice is put in a glass which is at room temperature, the ice melts and contents of the glass become colder, as an effect of heat transfer. The ice, as it melted, absorbed the heat from the glass-contents (and changed its state from solid to liquid) and made the glass-contents colder. Different materials have different temperature points at which they ‘change phase’ and these materials can be used for temperature-control sans constant electricity for different applications, such as freezers as well as warm shelters.
A cold room based on ‘phase change materials’ does not require constant electricity, or even as much electricity as a conventional cold room. The energy required for it can be drawn either from electricity grids or can be generated on-site using solar panels. While the farmers with resources at their disposal can incorporate this technology, it will take some effort to make it accessible to farmers who have limited resources. SHG’s (Self-help groups), FPO’s (Farmer Producer Organizations), etc., could be approached so that the economically weaker farmers can secure funding to set up these technologies in their fields. The funding or loans can easily be paid-off from increased income from improved post-harvest crop management.
The government could consider blended finance schemes – a combination of grants and loans to enable this.
Another avenue for mitigating post-harvest produce spoilage is that it can instead be utilised and transformed into newer products, using controlled drying methods. Dried vegetable and fruit produce, such as pineapple slices, have higher nutritional value and are quite in demand at gourmet stores in urban centres. Here as well, a ‘phase change materials’ based dryer will allow for temperature-controlled drying, giving high-quality produce. Such a dryer operates entirely on solar energy, which is storage and release by ‘phase change materials’; the dryer utilizes stored thermal energy for drying during non-sunshine hours, and does not need electricity or any fuel. The 24×7 consistent and continuous drying makes the dryer a sustainable alternate source of income generation while addressing the issue of post-harvest spoilage.
Setting up and using technology for non-conventional cold rooms as well as drying of farm produce would create additional employment opportunities at the farm level and contribute towards improving the income of farmers. Additionally, these technology-based solutions are in consonance with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals 2 (zero hunger: increase agricultural productivity and production, and incomes especially of small-scale food producers), 7 (affordable and clean energy: access to affordable, reliable, modern and efficient energy), and 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure: technology development and innovation to develop resilient and sustainable infrastructure).
If we contribute towards equipping marginalised and underprivileged populations with innovative and sustainable solutions that improves their well-being, then much can be achieved towards betterment of our society as a whole.