The coronavirus and the cold chain

Ontario Food Terminal
CC BY 2.0 Trucks at Ontario Food Terminal/ Wikipedia

“Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands, and the mouth.”

In a recent post, Staggering quantities of food are being destroyed due to coronavirus, Katherine Martinko noted that the entire food production and distribution system has been disrupted. One of the key elements of the system is the Cold Chain, which "involves the transportation of temperature-sensitive products along a supply chain through thermal and refrigerated packaging methods and the logistical planning to protect the integrity of these shipments."

The Cold Chain is incredibly complex. It's also an energy hog and a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (remember those?). As part of my class in Sustainable Design at Ryerson University, I had each student research an aspect of our carbon footprint, all those myriad little things that add up and really matter if we are going to keep below a 1.5 degree increase in average global temperatures by 2030.

Cold chain© Yu Xin Shi, Ryerson University

Fine Arts student Yu Xin Shi studied the cold chain, and found that in North America even a head of lettuce spends 55 hours being transported. (See also Lettuce is stupid and you shouldn't be eating it now anyway.)

cold chain process© Yu Xin Shi, Ryerson University

Every step of the distribution process consumes prodigious amounts of energy and stuff. The food has to be packed, transported to a warehouse, shipped in trucks, "consolidated" and distributed. There is disposable packaging, foam fish coffins, gel packs, and more. According to Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Theo Notteboom,

The greater the physical separation, the more likely freight can be damaged in one of the complex transport operations involved. Some goods can be damaged by shocks while others can be damaged by undue temperature variations. For a range of goods labeled as perishables, particularly food (produces), their quality degrades with time since they maintain chemical reactions which rate can be mostly mitigated with lower temperatures. It takes time and coordination to efficiently move a shipment and every delay can have negative consequences, notably if this cargo is perishable.

Yu Xin Shi writes:

cold chain distribution sustainability© Yu Xin Shi, Ryerson University

It is estimated that 15 percent of the world's energy production is used in cold chain distribution alone. Twenty percent of the world's HFC- hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in the refrigerants and contribute to global warming, are used.

Food waste© Yu Xin Shi, Ryerson University

Then there is the issue of food waste when the system breaks down, as is happening right now. As Katherine Martinko has noted, the disruption in what and how we eat is along the entire length of the food system, She calls for a change in what we eat.

At no point in recent memory has it been so clear that the way we grow, distribute, and buy food needs to change. Smaller-scale production that can pivot more quickly to accommodate local needs and navigate global crises, that does not rely on vast mono-crops and convoluted shipping networks in order to distribute, is a far safer and more secure way to go. There's more than enough food to go around, but only if we learn how to distribute it properly.

In The coronavirus and the future of food I also concluded:

Perhaps it's time to recognize the high price of cheap food. To acknowledge the failure of economic integration. To recognize that when it comes to the crunch, we have to look to our neighbors, our local community, and our own backyards. To build and support that local supply chain to move local and seasonal food from farm to fork.

According to Tobias Jones in the Guardian, the Italian communalist Lanza del Vasto once urged, “Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands, and the mouth.”

Today, we are thinking about food security and waste. In the not-too-distant future, we will all have to start thinking about carbon dioxide and refrigerants and 1.5 degrees. In every one of these respects, the current food chain is failing us. Perhaps it is time for a rethink.

The coronavirus and the cold chain
So much of our diet comes on refrigerated trucks. It consumes a lot of fossil fuels and puts out a lot of CO2.

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