Wholesalers & Distributors

Striving for Sustainable Solutions

Sustainability can be hard to define, but the fresh foods industry has applied its own meaning to the practice by implementing a variety of initiatives to make a positive impact.
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The Big Easyhas its name for a reason. New Orleans has an inherent relaxed, laid back vibe, but this month the Crescent City will host a conference on an important and serious topic: sustainability. 

The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)’s 2016 Global Sustainability Summit, which will be held Aug. 10-12 at the New Orleans Marriott, aims to give companies the tools, connections and solutions to take their sustainability programs and practices to the next level, say show organizers. 

The Sustainability Summit will cover education sessions on emerging issues, trends and technology for measuring and managing sustainability, as well as increasing traceability and transparency—topics that have become important to fresh food producers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike.  

Ahead of the event, Grocery Headquarters connected with produce growers and fresh food suppliers to discuss why the definition of sustainability is tricky, what sustainability practices their companies employ and the challenges that sustainability initiatives can present.

What does sustainability mean in the produce/fresh food sector? 

Sara Brinkley, Peri & Sons Farms:Sustainability in produce is a verifiable commitment from the grower to be dedicated and efficient with respect to resources, with minimal environmental impact, social accountability and economic viability.

Carlos Visconti, Red Sun Farms: Sustainability in the produce sector means innovating with eco-friendly packaging materials to ensure optimal shelf life with the most direct route from farm to retailer to consumer. This approach ensures that our consumers receive the freshest possible produce with minimal packaging from an environmental perspective. Having packaging that is recyclable or that uses recycled materials is a way to preserve global resources for the future generations. This methodology was the inspiration for our Organic Grape fiber punnetts.

Steve Lutz, CMI: It is a long-term point of view to maximize what you are doing within the farm and packing plants over time. You have to be good stewards of the land, but you also have to be good stewards of water use, packaging use, power resources and everything else. It encompasses all aspects of farm-to-table. Certainly there are economic incentives to be more sustainable if you have the ability to reduce materials, consumption of waterpower and the use of pesticide inputs—all of those things are related to sustainability initiatives.

What sustainability practices does your company currently practice? 

​Dionysios Christou, Del Monte Fresh Produce: Our company has established environmental and social procedures as well as numerous programs that protect and sustain the environment and promote the well-being of our employees and the communities in which we operate. Our environmental and employee programs are regularly audited by internal and external auditors against internationally accepted environmental standards. These include programs such as SCS sustainability grown, Global GAP, ISO 14001 and the Ethical Trading Initiative. In the sustainability section of our website, we present the many programs the company has implemented worldwide and their corresponding results.

Micki Dirtzu, North Shore: North Shore is proud of our history in sustainable practices that led to us becoming the first herb grower in the U.S. to be Sustainably Grown Certified. This honor reflects our commitment to earth-friendly growing practices, locally grown programs, community support and fair labor practices. We utilized renewable resources such as geothermal heat to keep our greenhouses warm during the cool winter nights and just completed a solar project to reduce our utilities through the use of solar power energy to run operations. Growing hydroponically allows us to use up to 70 percent less water than our field grown counterparts, and we have a complex system to capture, filter and reuse water that would otherwise be wasted. We use predatory insects to reduce the need for pesticides. All our products are grown in the U.S. and never imported, which means we keep our carbon footprint low. 

Jacob Shafer, Mann Packing: Our sustainability practices are designed to maximize crop yields and limit waste, while improving overall product quality. For example, Mann’s customized harvesters limit the environmental impact with lower emissions, faster harvest times and limited crews, all of which impact the environment. At our facilities, wash water is reclaimed into industrial waste systems for use on golf courses and city landscaping, and 90 percent of our facilities’ wastewater is recycled. The electrical usage at our Salinas plant is the same as it was in 2001 despite a 50 percent increase in capacity. All of our corrugate and plastic packaging is recycled; Mann’s has zero packaging waste, and we are focused on our products’ lifecycles.

John Chamberlain, Limoneira Co.: In 2015, Limoneira began utilizing new water ponds. This project is the first of its kind and uses gravity and natural plant material to provide ecological wastewater treatment. Limoneira’s new packinghouse with a number of sustainable technological advancements came on stream. This plant will increase efficiency dramatically, allowing us to do more with less. 

Limoneira’s website, limoneira.com, has also been updated to include a comprehensive review of sustainability efforts. A sustainability matrix was incorporated which easily classified sustainability initiatives according to whether they benefited resources, nature or people. 

Neeraj Sharama, Apio: We have been practicing how we can reduce the overall packaging footprint, how we can bring more recycled packaging into our system and how we can even look into biodegradable options. Those are the activities that we look to do. The packaging design and size can say a lot. For example, sometimes you think you need this packaging, but if you look at it critically and ask, ‘can we reduce the size?’ By doing that we can minimize the amount of packaging we are using or even the amount secondary packaging that we will use. It is a cyclical process and we need to look it at from every angle, from material type, recyclability and packaging size and continue to do that. 

Sustainability to us also means how we can double up our processes internally to process the vegetables when we clean them and wash them. How can we conserve more water? How can we reduce the water? How can we recycle the water so we are not using more and more of it, especially being in California. We are definitely looking into that all the time. 

What are the biggest challenges fresh food producers face when it comes to sustainability and how can they be overcome?

Kurt Myers, Clear Springs Foods: Sustainability has many different definitions. The challenge becomes defining it in a way that tells a compelling and relevant story to the consumer. Retailers want to make sure consumers trust their supply sources. In conveying trust, they want to make sure that consumers understand that there is a review process and that it is differentiated (i.e. more thorough and credible) from the competitor’s process. 

Dirtzu: The initial investment can be a limiting factor for growers and producers to implement practices such as geothermal heat or solar power energy. There is also red tape involved during the inspection and approval process. We would encourage them to keep their eyes on the long-term impact of this investment, which ultimately benefits both the company and the planet.

Christou: The effects of weather on the produce industry has always been a possible challenge, especially in years that it causes water stress on farming operations. In times of drought or water scarcity, pursuing alternative irrigation strategies or investing in more water efficient infrastructure can provide practical solutions.

Also, sustainability means different things to different people. For example, while some might consider organics a sustainable solution, in many cases organic farming requires more resources to produce the same amount of food as conventional. While this might be an acceptable price to pay for a consumer in an affluent society of the U.S., it could be detrimental to lower income people in many other countries. The industry needs to find a way to responsibly balance the interest of all stakeholders. 

Lutz:In the case of producing apples, you have to think about sustainable agriculture because you need the tree to produce apples for 15 or 20 years and to produce apples well. It is really inherent in how we go about our production practices. There are all sorts of issues that come into play relative to sustainability. How do you conserve water without starving the tree? How do you get ample fertilizer and nutrients to the tree without over fertilizing and creating negative situations for runoff? In the warehouse, how do you handle the water you are using to reduce the water runoff? Those are small issues that the growers and individual warehouse are dealing with on a daily basis. 

Brinkley: Growing produce requires precious resources and has an impact on the environment. It is our mission to minimalize our individual impact and still provide top-quality produce, so we continually incorporate new techniques and methods whenever and wherever possible.   

What can the industry expect regarding sustainability in the future?  

Visconti: Sustainability will drive the direction of packaging innovation, material handling, operational design and functionality. Greenhouses will become more efficient in the reuse of natural resources and self-sustaining operations. In addition, the industry will evolve to operations, which have lower impact on the environment, but deliver more efficient ways of working. Combining this approach with packaging innovation, we as greenhouse growers will be held accountable to deliver high quality produce from a reduced carbon footprint.

Myers: The certification process will continue to become more robust. With content delivery over digital platforms, more retailers will tell their story and identify specific suppliers as examples. The story will become more personalized from a consumer perspective.    

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