Exciting Sustainability Activity in the Produce Industry

The kind of samples one gets at the PMA, Yum!!!


I just got back from three days at one of my favorite ag industry meetings: The Produce Marketing Association “Fresh Summit.”  To those in the industry this is just known as the PMA.   This is an event where the vast majority of the fresh produce and flower industry gathers to show off their products, their new ideas and all the technologies that help process, sort, package and preserve the freshness of the produce.    There are more than a thousand booths and a great many of them offer samples like the one pictured above.  You get to see new and exotic fruits and vegetables, some of which eventually make it into the mainstream (I’ll talk about some examples in a later post).  

So, basically I juist got to spend three days talking to people about produce, traceability, food safety and sustainability – all the while eating delicious produce samples.  If it didn’t cost $700 to get in I’m sure this event would be over-run.  I think they should have an additional week for consumers at some lower cost (maybe with a lottery for who gets to come).  

Anyway, I was encouraged to find that “sustainability” was a major theme this year – far more than two years ago which was the last time I got to go to the PMA.  I could blog for days about what I saw, but I’ll hit some highlights. 

Ecobox, see emty example at top of picture

There was a very cool alternative to the traditional cardboard “flat.” Most fresh produce is shipped in case boxes or in “flats” which are the units that retailers put out on the display if they don’t actually transfer the produce into bulk displays.  ECOPACK has come up with something they call a Green Box which is made of stackable flats or trays made of recyclable or returnable plastic that are 1/2 the weight of the cardboard.  The marketing and traceability information is on small sleeves attached to the ends of the tray. The link I will give you is directed to the produce industry, but you can see it’s sustainability focus.

I talked with some folks from  CSX who are involved in shipments of produce by rail.  They have done a lot of work to understand the carbon footprint of their transport and have monthly contests for their train engineers to see who can achieve the best fuel efficiency.  They are working on ways to make rail a more competitive option with trucking, even for fresh produce, by providing points of freight consolidation.  Especially for or those of you who live in places with that thing called “winter,” this is great for increasing the sustainability of your fresh produce supply.

On the trucking front, there was a company called Universal Container Inc. that has developed a refrigerated container technology for fresh produce shipping (could be on trucks, trains or ships) that uses liquid nitrogen for cooling rather than the standard diesel compressor technology.  It consumes little energy and has no carbon, particulate, NOX emissions or noise in operation.  Its only emission is nitrogen gas which is already ~80% of the atmosphere.  There is obviously energy involved in producing the liquid nitrogen, but that is really largely a co-product from companies that are after other atmospheric gases.  I’d like to see a full-blown LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) on this because I’d bet money that this will come out on top in terms of GHG in addition to the air and noise pollution advantages.

There were also some really cool sustainability things in the packaging area.  I’ll put that in a later post.

Perhaps the best example of sustainability innovation by a produce company came from the largest Onion company in the US, Gills Onions.  They put in an anaerobic digester to deal with the waste from their operations and are now generating enough energy to power 460 homes.  

I was encouraged, because even though I met some folks at the PMA who didn’t even have sustainability on their radar, I met far more produce industry people who were on-board with the importance of this issue.   I’m not at all saying that the sustainability challenge has been fully addressed by the fresh produce industry, but I was very impressed with the momentum I observed.

Your are welcome to comment on this site.  You can also email me at [email protected].

All images from me, Steve Savage (Not a great photographer).




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