Friday, January 08, 2010


Expanding the Cold Chain in Emerging Markets

I’m sure that few if any readers have ever heard of the cold chain. Despite that, all of us living in developed countries, and even some people in developing countries, enjoy the benefits of the cold chain. Simply put, it is the system of storage and transportation that keeps temperature-sensitive things within a desired temperature range at all times from production to use.

For example, let’s say you buy some frozen fish. After the fish were caught and processed, they were frozen, and to keep them from thawing and spoiling, they have to be kept at the right temperature until you are ready to prepare and eat them. That entails storage in facilities and transport in conveyances that are always kept well below the freezing point. After delivery to a retailer, they are put in cold storage and then placed in frozen food cases. After purchase, you take them home (here in Japan many supermarkets provide customers with small bags of ice or dry ice to keep refrigerated items cold during transit), and then put them in the freezer until you decide to eat them.

Basically, the same system is used for all fresh and frozen perishables, and for other things that must be kept within a narrow temperature range, such as some pharmaceuticals.

You’ve no doubt already thought of where this is leading: the cold chain consumes a lot of energy. Just imagine how many large commercial coolers and freezers, refrigerated trucks, and the like are involved in this vast system. And efforts are underway to build and expand cold chains in developing countries as well. You can get a hint of what’s going on in “Rising interest in supply and cold chain financing in emerging markets: IFC.” While I don’t have the expertise to calculate how much energy would be required to operate cold chain systems in these emerging markets, it’s safe to say that it would be a lot. Remember, many of the people who would supposedly be served by these new and expanded cold chains don’t even have refrigerators yet, so when you start adding up all the new power consumption this would entail, it would obviously be very large. India and other “emerging markets” are already starved for electric power, and they are hard put to build new power production capacity. In that light, these ambitious plans for cold chain expansion will very likely run up against severe energy limitations, even if the capital is secured.

And then there is the matter of what happens to food distribution and storage when cold chains in developed countries break down, but I don’t even want to think about that now.

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