This paper reviews the current literature addressing food refrigeration from a sustainability perspective and identifies a number of large and important gaps for future research.
FCRN member Brent Heard from the University of Michigan has kindly provided the following summary of the paper published in Environmental Science and Technology:
This paper views refrigeration as a "transformative technology" which influences the systems in which it operates. Viewing refrigeration as a technology which feedbacks and interacts with a number of elements in the food system illuminates relationships and sustainability implications which may not otherwise be apparent. When taking this view, we find that despite the presence of refrigeration growing worldwide, papers addressing refrigeration rarely address non-direct sustainability impacts, ranging from changes in diets and shopping patterns, to infrastructure development. Viewing refrigeration from a broader perspective which incorporates these systemic relationships will be critical to improving food system sustainability and promoting sustainable development.
"The unbroken global refrigerated supply chain, or cold chain, is rapidly expanding in developing countries. In addition to increasing the energy intensity of the food system, the expanded cold chain may facilitate changes in the global diet, food waste patterns, food production and distribution, and shopping habits. The sustainability impacts of many of these changes chain are unknown, given the complexity of interacting social, economic, and technical factors. The current literature surrounding the environmental impacts of refrigeration in the food system focuses on the direct impacts of energy use and coolant emissions, and lacks a critical evaluation of the accompanying systemic societal changes that potentially carry greater environmental impacts. This review examines the cold chain as a transformative technology, identifying key intrinsic, indirect, and external factors that will favorably, unfavorably, or ambiguously impact the environmental profile of the food system. The review identifies key interactions and feedbacks between the cold chain, food production and consumption decisions, infrastructure development, and the global environment which are largely unexamined and in need of empirical data. Viewing cold chain expansion from this broader perspective is essential to understanding the changing impacts of the food system in developing countries and may inform future sustainability planning."
Heard, B., Miller, S. (2017) Critical Research Needed to Examine the Environmental Impacts of Expanded Refrigeration on the Food System, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2016, 50 (22), pp 12060–12071, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b02740
You may also be interested in an FCRN report that was cited in this paper, which provides an overview of the contribution that refrigeration makes to UK greenhouse gas emissions but more exploratively looks at the social, economic, structural and technical factors that have led to today’s dependence on refrigeration as a technology: Food refrigeration: What is the contribution to Greenhouse Gas emissions and how might emissions be reduced?
Read the paper here.