Raising temperature of transported frozen food reduces carbon emissions, study finds

Change of three degrees of frozen food temperatures can save 17.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, study finds. 

Most frozen food is transported and stored at -18°C, a standard that was set 93 years ago and has not changed since. A move to -15°C could make a significant environmental impact with no compromise on food safety or quality, a study found. 

The experts, from the Paris-based International Institute of Refrigeration, the University of Birmingham and London South Bank University, among others, found that the small change could: 

• Save 17.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent annual emissions of 3.8m cars annually 

• Create energy savings of around 25 terawatt-hours (TW/h) – 17.64% of the UAE’s electricity consumption 

• Cut costs in the supply chain by at least 5% and in some areas by up to 12% 

The research was supported by DP World, which has set up an industry-wide coalition to explore the feasibility of this change, named Join the Move to -15°C. 

This coalition aims to redefine frozen food temperature standards to cut greenhouse gases, lower supply chain costs and secure food resources for the world’s growing population. 

The coalition has already been joined by leading industry organizations including: U.S.-based AJC Group, A.P. Moller – Maersk (Maersk) of Denmark; Daikin of Japan; the Global Cold Chain Alliance; Switzerland’s Kuehne + Nagel International; U.S.-based Lineage; Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) of Geneva; and Singapore-based Ocean Network Express (ONE). 

Maha AlQattan, Group Chief Sustainability Officer at DP World, said: “Frozen food standards have not been updated in almost a century. They are long overdue for revision. 

“A small temperature increase could have huge benefits but, however committed each individual organization is, the industry can only change what’s possible by working together. 

“With this research and with our newly formed coalition, we aim to support collaboration across the industry to find viable ways to achieve the sector’s shared net zero ambition by 2050. 

“The Move to -15°C will bring the industry together to explore new, greener standards to help decarbonize the sector on a global scale. Through this research, we can see how we can deploy accessible storage technologies in all markets to freeze food at sustainable temperatures, while reducing food scarcity for vulnerable and developed communities.” 

Building resilience and ensuring future food security 

Annually hundreds of millions of tons of food from blueberries to broccoli is transported around the world. 

While freezing food extends shelf life, it comes with a significant environmental cost – as 2 to 3% more energy is required for every degree below zero that food is stored at. 

The logistics industry is working to decarbonize and facing rising energy bills. 

Yet demand for frozen food is increasing as appetites evolve in developing countries and price-conscious consumers seek nutritious, tasty food at more affordable prices. 

At the same time, experts estimate that 12% of food produced annually is wasted due to a lack of refrigerated and frozen logistics, called the cold chain in the industry, highlighting a significant need for greater capacity. 

Studies also suggest that 1.3 billion tons of edible food is thrown away every year – a third of global food production for human consumption. 

The need is particularly acute in areas like Sub-Saharan Africa and the Subcontinent. In Pakistan in 2022, for example, half of exportable mangoes were lost due to an extreme heatwave. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 820 million people are hungry today and 2 billion – roughly a quarter of the world’s population – suffer from food insecurity. 

Professor Toby Peters, University of Birmingham and Heriot-Watt University and director of the Centre for Sustainable Cooling said: “Cold chains are critical infrastructure, vital for a well-functioning society and economy. They underpin our access to safe and nutritious food and health, as well as our ability to spur economic growth.” 

He added: “Cold chain infrastructure, and the lack of it, have implications for global climate change and the environment.” 

Climate change-driven events such as droughts, floods, and heatwaves can reduce crop yields and harm livestock health and productivity. But freezing food can protect food sources and their nutritional value for months amid such crises. 

Peters added: “The UN predicts a population of 9.7 billion by 2050. To ensure food accessibility, we must close the 56% gap in the global food supply between what was produced in 2010 and what will be needed in 2050. 

“Cutting cold chain emissions and transforming how food is safely stored and moved today helps ensure we can keep sustainably feeding communities across the globe as populations and global temperatures rise, protecting nutritious food sources for years to come. 

“Building on this research, DP World’s coalition can be a key tool for overcoming today’s food challenges too, providing a stable inventory of quality food for the 820 million starving people worldwide and security for another 2 billion who are struggling with food scarcity.”

Photo credit: iStock/SunnyVMD

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