This ancient storage idea may resolve Asia's food waste

Asia accounts for more than half of global food waste due to a lack of adequate infrastructure but a technique practiced by early Egyptians could help resolve the modern-day problem.

The continent is home to the world's hungriest—a third of the extreme poor live in South Asia, according to the World Bank—but edible food still gets lost or wasted on a massive scale. Per capita food loss in South/Southeast Asia is around 120-170 kilograms a year, versus the region's total per capita food production of 460 kilograms a year, estimates the United Nations (UN).

A scavenger at a vegetable wholesale market in India.
Nisa Maier / Getty Images

"Some of the causes for wastage include out-dated or bad agricultural practices, poor roads and infrastructure, including the lack of cold storage and refrigerated trucks," explained researchers Tamara Nair and Christopher Lim of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University in a new note.

The bulk of food wasted is at the post-harvest, storage and transport stages, not at the consumption end, they observed, noting that India loses up to 40 percent of fruit and vegetable output because of poor refrigeration.

Securing financial capital to install proper equipment can be tough for farmers in emerging economies so Nair and Lim recommended an answer that doesn't use electricity: Evaporative cooling.

"Egyptian, Roman, and Persian societies used the idea to store food by simply resting two terracotta pots, one over the other, and filling the space in-between with sand and water. As water evaporates from the sand, it removes the heat thus keeping the pot above, where food is kept, at cooler temperatures."

The contemporary equivalent of terracotta pots is the Evaptainer, a lightweight device made out of durable and easily available materials that uses evaporative cooling to store food. Developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the box-like product can store fresh produce at 30 degrees Celsius below ambient temperatures using non-potable water.

"Just add water and the Evaptainer does the rest," the start-up proclaims on its website.

As a result of less food spoilage, low-income rural families are able to save over 5 percent of monthly incomes, Evaptainer said, citing field tests conducted in Morocco.

"We propose that a mechanism similar to the Evaptainer be created to prevent food wastage in rural Southeast Asia," said Nair and Lim.

The duo urged governments to create a strategic regional fund that would negotiate the rights to reproduce technology in food storage facilities and help supply farmers with Evaptainer-like storage vessels for minimum cost.

They also suggested the development of cottage industries in rural Southeast Asia to mass-produce these containers, which would bring in jobs to supplement agricultural work and empower local communities.

This solution would alleviate pressure on politicians to extend electricity supply for food storage in remote areas, promote sustainable energy, and focus on capacity building in agriculture-reliant areas, Nair and Lim added.

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