IFPA event explores transformative ag approach
If the March 30 International Fresh Produce Association Town Hall on the European Union’s Green Deal is a good gauge, it appears that the produce industry in Europe is embracing the concept of a more sustainable future and moving in that direction in a deliberate fashion.
The webinar explored the European Green Deal and the circular economy it espouses from several European-centric viewpoints, including a produce company based in the Netherlands, and agtech company in Norway and one of Europe’s top fresh produce associations, which is located in Belgium.
The EU has moved more quickly in working toward a circular economy than the United States with some members of the union, most notably France, jumping out ahead of EU-wide standards. A circular economy is the effort to take the planet into account in policymaking. The name implies that we have been playing in a linear economy that uses natural resources from the Earth to make products and then eventually throw them away as waste. A circular economy eliminates waste and pollution, circulates products and materials through reuse and recycling, and regenerates nature.
Nicola Pisano, who is the director of sustainability and health and communications manager at Freshfel Europe in Belgium, explained that the EU Green Deal is designed to transform Europe to a modern economy with zero net emissions by 2050, becoming the first climate neutral continent.
She said the effort involves an all-encompassing framework that envisions positive outcomes for all people, including improved health for Europe’s citizens, clean water and soil, and healthier food. She said there are many actions plans that are currently being worked on simultaneously at the EU level that are the main building blocks of the effort. That includes 35 legislative and non-legislative proposals that will be debated and altered as time goes by. For example, Pisano said one such proposal that directly impacts the fresh produce industry is the packaging initiative, which is designed to reduce the use of packaging and packaging waste and transition to 100 percent biodegradable material over time.
Moderator Ed Treacy, who is IFPA vice president of supply chain and sustainability for the U.S.-based association, noted to Pisano that France is moving ahead much more quickly on implementing some Green Deal initiatives, such as the elimination of non-compostable fruit stickers. The Freshfel executive acknowledged that countries moving ahead more quickly with various sustainability efforts of their own do create disruption to the trade and a disharmonization of standards. While she said it might be best to try to avoid these situations, Pisano did remind that the EU’s Green Deal is designed to establish minimum standards, and that some countries, and even regions within countries, can and are moving ahead faster than the requirements require.
Pisano said Freshtel and all stakeholders, including representatives of the U.S. produce industry, are encouraged to express their concerns as this process moves forward.
Articulating the viewpoint that adopting the tenants of the Green Deal as quickly as possible should be a goal and not a barrier was Adrielle Dankier, chief commercial officer of Nature’s Pride in Massdijk, Netherlands. She noted that Nature’s Pride began its walk down the sustainability path in 2011 and adopted a plan in 2018 calling for significant progressive for both environmental and social sustainability by 2023. She reported that first and foremost the 2018 plan called for the firm to measure all aspects of its operation around core sustainability goals.
Answering a question Treacy posed about whether these changes were a sales benefit or a cost, Dankier rejected the concept that there is a choice. “Taking care of the planet and people is the license to operate,” she said.
She said these measures certainly add a cost, but it is the right thing to do and indicated that costs cannot be a barrier to action. She added that it will be easier for Nature’s Pride when all companies are on the same page and doing the right thing in lock step, which will eliminate the cost advantage of not being a sustainable actor. She continued that in the beginning being known as a sustainable company might have attracted some customers, but that did not alter the bottom line positively. She noted the oft-stated industry lament that the market for produce is the market; a company does not get higher prices because it spends more money on the front end.
Dankier clearly relishes the time down the road when the planet is a healthier place because all companies are doing what is right.
Nature’s Pride works with many grower partners, and she said that “partnership is about taking a journey where we think the world should go.” The company is closely aligned with these growers working with them so they can also measure their inputs and collect data documenting their improvements.
Dankier did argue for harmonization of data collection and reporting so everyone is on the same page. “We need to have sector collaboration and harmonization,” she said.
Kaye Hope is the chief operating officer of Farmable, an agtech company designed to help growers capture, organize and use their data. She indicated that it is no longer an option of whether a grower is going to collect data but how they are going to do it. She said almost all growers are collecting data on pesticide and fertilizer use, for example. The problem is that there are still a lot of growers, especially mid-size growers, that make that first data entry with pen and paper as they drive their trucks through the fields.
Step one in adopting Green Deal rules and regulations, Hope said, is changing that dynamic and switching to an electronic tracking method. If you can track it and measure it, reduction is likely to follow appears to be her philosophy. Hope explained that the idea of using fewer resources appeals to most growers as inputs are expensive and reduction in expenses should equate to greater returns. It’s not a complex equation, she said. “If you use fewer resources, you should come out with more profits.”
However, she did add that profitability is a fair concern. “This (fresh produce) is a low-margin business and you have to stay profitable.”
She advised growers to work with agtech professionals, develop a structured plan for data collection and digitize it. She said the “addiction to the notebook” has to be cured. “Find a system (and she said there are many out there) that makes the first point of collection digital. Get off pen and paper,” she reiterated.
During the Town Hall, Treacy touted IFPA’s sustainability case studies effort that highlights how companies are achieving great results and the path they took to get there. So far, IFPA has generated 15 of these reports. He urged member companies interested in having a case study to contact him.
Also participating in the webinar was Andrew Stephens, a senior policy advisor at the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. He reported on a grant program the agency has developed to help fund projects creating environmentally friendly packaging. He noted that the FAS is concerned that sustainable packaging mandates in the produce industry will serve as a trade barrier and prevent exports to Europe. USDA is working with some packaging companies, but more funds are available. Treacy noted that IFPA has informed about 140 packaging companies in the fresh produce industry about this project. Stephens urged companies to apply for these funds. Treacy added that there are no compostable fruit stickers at this point to comply with France’s proposal.