Often enough we see fresh farm produce like vegetables and fruits — food, basically — go to waste after failing to make it to market on time. Farmers get rid of surplus harvest by either feeding them to farm animals or just turning them to compost. Those that stay fresh long enough are just given away to any takers for free.
Even harvested grains like rice, after being dried, hulled, and milled, can last only for so long. It has more to do with how we store grains, and the lack of facilities to make use of intervening technologies to improve storage and shelf life. Canning or pickling are some options for produce, or even blast freezing, but these are not suitable for staples like rice.
Even meat from livestock require refrigeration or freezing to improve their shelf life. One can process, cook, dry, can, or pickle only so much meat. Most must still be sold either fresh or fresh frozen. Otherwise, they degrade and rot, and thus go to waste. Households, meantime, can store only so much food at any given time.
This COVID-19 pandemic, as well as geopolitical events that disrupt global trade, clearly indicate that food supply disruptions are a fact of life. And that while domestic food production may be ongoing and sufficient, without logistics — transport, storage, and distribution — people can still go hungry. Most vulnerable are the poorest of the poor.
In recent weeks I have been finding myself in the company of elders who have been discussing our seeming lack of long-term, sustainable food security. And, among the points they have raised include the lack of refrigeration and storage capability both at the production and at the distribution as well as household levels.
Every time I am on the Skyway heading north, I cannot help but notice the big facility of ORCA in Taguig, just off Laguna Lake. Being curiou s, I checked on it online. Available literature indicates that ORCA Cold Chain Solutions is a “fully automated cold chain facility” that “offers temperature-controlled logistics, warehousing and pre- and post-storage value added services.”
To date, ORCA has facilities in Alabang, Taguig and Caloocan. All three sites are near ports and industrial zones. The sites also have access to existing rail lines as well as trucking routes. This, to me, is an important consideration. The company is said to handle frozen and chilled food products for fast food chains, exporters and importers, and small food entrepreneurs. The company claims to be the first and only company in the country “to invest this heavily on… ‘food infrastructure’.”
There is much to be learned from what ORCA is doing, and I believe the company deserves a commendation for its foresight and its present efforts. The government, through the Board of Investments, is also working on a Cold Chain Industry Roadmap, which I also believe deserves support. This rings true more so now, when “disruptions” can easily occur and leave the population vulnerable to hunger.
And while ORCA appears to apply itself and facilities more to commercial concerns, nothing precludes local governments and smaller communities from initiating efforts to improve local food supply and storage, with the help of businesses within their respective territories. In fact, nothing stops local government from partnering with firms like ORCA to put up smaller, community-based storage facilities.
I don’t see any strong effort on the part of any local government to stockpile or warehouse food, or to build disaster-proof bunkers or shelters. Makati City, for one, can look into this once the proposed subway starts construction. The subway line should be built strong enough to withstand earthquakes, floods, and typhoons, and should be easily convertible to long-term, sustainable shelter or bunker in cases of disaster and other emergencies, or war.
Food storage must be made part of the construction plans. Even sanitation and waste disposal should be considered. When people seek shelter in these subway bunkers, they will need access to food supply, medicine and healthcare, as well as clean water and sanitation. With everything that is happening in the world today, we should already be planning for this.
The Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor Island was built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, initially as a bomb-proof storage and personnel bunker. It was later equipped as a 1,000-bed hospital. The main tunnel, running east to west, is more than 250 meters long, and about seven meters wide and six meters high. Branching off from this main shaft are 13 lateral tunnels on the north side and 11 lateral tunnels on the south side. Each lateral averaged 49 meters long and five meters wide. The main tunnel and the laterals were built from 1932 to 1934. After 86 years, the main tunnel and some laterals are still standing.
Admittedly, not all local governments can afford to build bunkers like Malinta Tunnel or stockpile food. But most have the capability to build public markets, either at their own expense or through private sector investment. Knowledge and technology on how to build better markets with sufficient cold and dry storage facilities can be made available, and assistance on construction can be sought. Farm-to-market roads make less sense if produce will just end up rotting in a few days’ time after they get to the market.
In their own little way, smaller towns can start some initiative on food stockpiling with storage expertise from firms like ORCA. Beside public markets, local storage facilities and a water station can be built, preferably with facilities for chilling or freezing. Local officials can source produce from the local community, or take the daily market surplus, and then stockpile these for at least six months to one year. Purchasing costs can be offset against local taxes.
Along with food, potable water will also be stored. Technology and knowledge can be shared by experts on how to best store food and water. Stocks can be cycled every six months to one year. Instead of having to buy goods for Christmas giveaways, for instance, local produce kept in storage can be given out instead. And then the storage facility can be restocked by the New Year, perhaps along with seeds that can be used for planting grains and vegetables. During disasters, goods can also be drawn from the stockpile as food assistance to disaster victims.
If chilling and freezing will be difficult, then provide at least some facilities for salting and drying, pickling and bottling, or vacuum sealing food in portions that can easily serve households. Some facilities can run on solar power, to save on electricity costs. Take grains out of sacks and put them in plastic bags and vacuum seal them. The same goes for sugar and salt and other dry goods like beans and nuts. Vegetables can also be dried or salted or pickled and then either bottled or vacuum sealed. Meats and fish can likewise be vacuum sealed prior to chilling or freezing.
There is enough literature to show how storing can be done cheaply and efficiently. It is said that vacuum sealing extends the shelf life of food by three to five times. Frozen food that is vacuum sealed lasts an average of two to three years. Grains, when vacuum sealed and stored properly, can last for several years. An option is to process produce into food like military meal rations, and store them as such. Shelf life is reportedly up to five years.
Let’s leave out land issues and agrarian reform meantime, as well as financing and trading concerns. After all, with or without middlemen in the picture, the fact remains that stockpiling and the cold storage chain are necessary elements to ensuring food security. My concern is that there can never be real, long-term, sustainable food security unless we have food storage security as well.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council