How Post-Harvest Losses Continue to Plague the Agricultural Sector

By Amulya Aggarwal

India ranks as low as 101 on the Global Hunger Index despite being the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world. India further imports agricultural produce worth approximately 1.47 crores despite the government’s extensive claims of our country being self-sufficient. The question arises – How did we land here? For years, we have focused our endeavors towards maximizing the country’s agricultural production whether it be through the green revolution or by innovating more efficient irrigation systems. All our resources have been focused only on boosting production. However, is underproduction the real problem?

Post-Harvest Losses are the losses that are incurred upon harvesting but before the final consumption. These losses amount to a staggering 40% of the country’s produce. The paradoxical nature of this phenomenon can be uncovered from the fact that farmers incur 92,651 crores of post-harvest loss per year according to the data published by the Ministry of Food Processing Industries. However, ironically the high level Dalwai committee report suggests that an investment of 89,375 crores – a figure marginally lower than the annual post-harvest losses is all that is required to put this problem to bed and improve the state of storage and transportation facilities for food crops.

Credits – ResearchGate

This problem can be further visualized by drawing a stark comparison between India’s Post Harvest losses and UK’s total consumption. In terms of volume, the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables that India loses every year is the same as the amount consumed in the United Kingdom in one whole year. In other words, what they consume, we waste. This becomes even more critical in case of perishable fruits and vegetables since their quality declines rapidly. In fact, 10 lakh tonnes of onion and 22 lakh tonnes of tomatoes get damaged even before they reach the market. This sheds light on the magnitude of food wasted in our country, painting a grim picture of the agricultural infrastructure.

Causes

The primary causes of these losses are poor storage and transportation facilities. Other causes include losses taking place during packaging, grading and sorting, among others. Close to only 16 per cent of the target set for creating integrated pack-houses, reefer trucks, cold storage and ripening units has been met. There remains an overall gap of about 84-99 per cent in achieving the target on improving the state of storage and transportation of the farm produce. As per the National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD) estimates, there is a shortfall of 126 lakh tonnes of cold storage capacity in the country. The problem with the current cold storage facilities is that they are restricted to certain crop types and not integrated or adaptive with other requirements. For instance, about 75% of cold storage units in India are single commodity storages used to store potatoes and potato seeds. Moreover, currently only 4 percent of the country’s produce moves through cold chains – a big reason why food losses are so high in volume. 92% of cold storages in India are owned and operated by the private sector. It’s evident that a large unfulfilled gap exists in the sector for investments in cold storage, CA storage, reefers, ripening chambers, IQF, milk chilling and processing, among others.

Credits – ResearchGate

Further, the problem with these storages is that they have an excessive toll on both the farmer’s income as well as the environment due to high initial investment required and the heavy carbon footprints. These conventional cooling technologies such as diesel-powered generators pose serious and dire threats due to their energy intensive mechanism. The India Cooling Action Plan predicted that energy consumption from the nation’s cold chains will nearly triple in the next two decades, jumping to 212 Terawatt hours (TWh) from 71 TWh in 2017 which can prove extremely hazardous for the nation. With the world grappling with a cataclysmic energy and environmental crisis, there is a dire need to promote eco-friendly and sustainable cooling technologies.

Furthermore, operating costs for such cold storages in India are approximately Rs 80-90 per cubic foot per year as compared to the meagre Rs 40 per cubic foot per year in the West. Energy costs alone make up approximately 30 % of the overall expenses for the cold storage industry in India whereas they account for a mere 10 % in the West. As a result of these constraints, the business of establishing cold storage facilities has a high entry barrier. A fully integrated cold storage facility will further require an approximate area of an acre to build which can roughly cost anywhere between Rs 1 crore and 1.5 crore. This has formed the core reason behind the extremely lacking agricultural infrastructure of the country. Additionally, these cooling units are not modular or mobile and hence, location becomes a key factor. With India’s small and limited land holdings, obtaining large pieces of land is a major additional constraint and this adds to the farmer’s troubles. 

Alternatives

Some of the alternatives to these unaffordable solutions are Zeers, EC’s, ZEEC’s etc. These work on the age-old technique of earthen pots. Its simple structure has two layers of walls, and the gap is filled with sand. The top of the structure lets the water seep into the sand, making it moist. This moist sand between the walls helps maintain the temperature inside the rooms. These can be functional in reducing the temperature by an approximate 15 degrees and increasing the crop life by 7-10 days. Over time, this idea has innovated into various adaptive models such as the one with mesh fabric which has proven to be even more cost effective and sturdy. Various Agri-startups such as Tan-90, Rukart and Subjikothi have been functional in innovating over this concept and maintaining the microclimate which helps preserve the freshness of fruits and vegetables stored without any decline in quality. This is achieved by maintaining a lower temperature and sustaining the required humidity levels. These are zero energy solutions which use nothing but water and have hence proven to be eco-friendly.

It also becomes imperative that we understand what makes such storage solutions an absolute necessity. The highly perishable nature of the produce makes it necessary to sell at the earliest in order to prevent any wastage. This often forces farmers to sell their produce at whichever price is currently prevailing in the market, thereby resulting in a loss of bargaining power. For years, farmers have emerged on the losing side of this battle leading to distress selling and the hegemony of intermediaries. Many farmers are barely able to make up for the costs due to massive intervention of middlemen, making profits negligible. Proper storage and transportation facilities would help increase the shelf life of the produce and thereby, provide them with better price realization. This can be functional in helping them achieve sustainable livelihoods.

Small and marginal farmers bear the brunt of this problem who constitute close to 86% of the farmer base in India. In India, out of 121 million agricultural holdings, 99 million are with small and marginal farmers, with a minimal land share of mere 44 per cent. These farmers account for 70 percent of all vegetable output while still struggling with increasing financial burdens.

Impact on the Economy

Let’s evaluate what this means for the economy. If these losses were prevented, over 5 crore people could be fed for a year at the rate of Rs. 50 per day. Further, if this sector is beefed up, it can create over 28 million jobs throughout the country by the creation of direct jobs as well as indirect jobs in operation, maintenance, collection, transportation and allied services. These statistics are derived from a simple conservative estimate which tells us that such infrastructure could collectively inject Rs 500 billion worth of new investments into the rural economy. This is being looked after to a certain extent by the help of schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sampada Yojana but there still exists a need to further boost investments and the penetration rate of these schemes, in order to best ensure the trickle-down effect. 
Hence, it’s evident that Post Harvest Loss is not only a problem that deeply plagues India’s agricultural sector but also an untapped opportunity. I can conclude from this piece of research that beneath the apparent tranquility in parts of rural India lies a community suffering in silence. Every day 28 people dependent on farming die by suicide. The agricultural industry contributes to approximately 17% of the Indian economy. It’s imperative to realize that India is an agrarian country with 70% of its population directly or indirectly depending on agriculture for their livelihoods. Enhancing the agricultural infrastructure sector will be functional in both eliminating the turmoil of the farming community as well as in providing the required impetus to the sector.

Amulya Aggarwal is a student at Delhi University pursuing B.Com Honours.

Image credits: https://www.tpci.in/indiabusinesstrade/blogs/foodgrain-storage-in-india-waste-not-want-not/

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