The well-planned and huge investments in sustainable and resilient food systems were in for a surprise last year when the pandemic hit. While some lost their lives from COVID-19, other health issues followed. The lack of work for casual labourers, suddenly without income due to severe lockdowns, resulted in hunger and malnutrition which added to the misery of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across rich and poor countries alike. The economic disruptions with the cascading effects of job losses, and the non-availability of certain staple foods, added further burdens to low-income families. Many felt the shocks to ordinary everyday items when the supply chains were stretched.
But there were some well-proven systems around food processing that were sustained during the pandemic where supply was not affected.
One example is the dairy sector in India. India boasts the largest production of milk in the world. A pioneer in the decentralization model of food production, Veghese Kurien procured this daily staple within a radius of 25 km from villages to processing centres, ensuring a transport time of less than two hours to mini processing centres in district headquarters or nearby cities. The system allowed for milk to be pasteurized, refrigerated and packed in sachets, and distributed to local villages before dawn the next day, and available to buy in small shops. This 60-year-old system has shown a resilience that is remarkable indeed, not only through its production process, but through the employment of delivery workers and producers.
The scale-down model has shown to the world that if the social, scientific and technological innovations are rightly connected with transparency, then solutions at the local level pave the way for solutions at the global level, by replicating such sustainable food processing models of perishables at a very affordable cost.Dr. Vish Prakash
The state government role is crucial to this system, supporting cooperative milk federations made up by the individual farmers. Milk is hygienically processed, and every day fresh milk is obtained and pasteurized with no added chemicals. Quality testing is mandatory for the management of a continuous system operation. This has been shown as a very sustainable model which has worked well over several decades, supporting the dairy needs of local residents.
Any excess milk is dried in selected processing centres. Further excess milk is converted to value-added products like cottage cheese, butter, yoghurt and some snack items which are also sold in the small shops associated with these centres. Thus, it has a holistic approach with almost every by-product utilized with the traditional foods of the region.
It is also a system that ensures a small carbon footprint. More importantly, this system means it is not dependent on imported materials, which can paralyse a system reliant on national or global supply chains.
This local solution of a sustainable and resilient model within a small geographic radius, is now also applied to fruits and vegetables and minor pulses, millets and many grains grown locally in the same area in India. This decentralized model is known as the White Revolution across India.
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This report from IIASA and the ISC argues that the emphasis on efficiency, which has been driving to a large part the evolution of food systems, needs to be counter-balanced by a greater emphasis on resilience and equity concerns. As illustrated by the pandemic this entails expanding the scope and reach of social safety nets and protection schemes. It also includes assessing and where necessary adjusting supply chains and trade in their capacity to absorb and adapt to a multitude of risks
What lessons can we learn from India’s White Revolution?
With climate change models predicting a food crises and the urgent need for technological advances in the way food is produced and transported, reproducing such models in agri-economy dependent countries – by empowering the farmer to be inducted into the supply chain through cooperative models – could be one of the key solutions. By assuring markets for perishable products through distributed and localized networks, scaling down the technology of processing and thus reducing long transportation that can upend supply chains during times of crisis or other external issues, the model has merits for scalability in other countries.
There are many parts of the globe where such scaling down of production through micro sustainable models that supports a national grid could work. Such models ensure the happiness to the end consumer, as well as benefits to small scale famers through government supported cooperatives. While there could be localized obstacles in the chain, the decentralized system has proven it can take serious external shocks with its resilience.
Dr. Vish Prakash
President, International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFOST)