TUBAC, Ariz. — From food waste to NAFTA 2.0 to blockchain and food safety issues, industry leaders voiced their thoughts on hot-button issues during a panel presentation at the 50th Nogales Produce Convention.
Moderated by Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, the Nov. 1 panel opened with a discussion of food waste and produce consumption.
The issue of waste is misunderstood, said Cathy Burns, president and CEO of the Produce Marketing Association. She said she would like to recast the food waste issue as food utility.
“Not every piece of fruit and vegetable crops that go to the ground is waste,” she said, noting that much produce is composted, with those nutrients returned to the soil.
“We get this data that 40% of what we are growing is thrown away, and it is just not true,” she said.
“We have work to do with (the) industry to re-frame that story about food waste, while still making a big impact on (reducing) food waste,” she said.
James Martin, director of sustainability for Wilson Produce, said food waste is a hot topic and it does present problems that need to be addressed.
“We have fresh produce waste in Nogales,” he said, noting that 153,000 truckloads of produce pass through the town every year. About 300 truckloads go to waste, he said. “It is a fraction of a percent (that goes to waste) but it is significant,” he said.
Community groups and food rescue organizations work with the industry to use non-salable food that could otherwise wind up in a landfill. A recent grant is funding the creating of a central location for composting produce waste in the community, he said.
Burns said a related issue to food waste is measuring consumption of fruits and vegetables, and she said PMA is undertaking an effort to formulate a consistent international definition.
She said PMA has assembled a task force to create a global consumption index. The index will combine many data points, in partnership with Euromonitor International, to look at supply, trade and consumption data across a dozen countries.
The information, to be made available to PMA members, will be called the PMA Produce Digest and also will give forecasts and projections about future production and consumption trends, she said.
“We’re very excited about this,” she said, noting that their has been an ongoing conversation about harmonizing consumption statistics for as long as PMA has existed. “We are going to put some real framework behind that.”
On the subject of trade, panelist Dari Duval, economic analyst with the University of Arizona, said one of the things that struck her while looking at the tomato trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada was that the U.S. actually is a net exporter of processed tomatoes to Mexico and Canada, while Mexico controls the balance of trade for fresh tomatoes. Each country has advantages it can leverage in trade, she said.
The recent U.S. Mexico-Canada Agreement has to make room for the differences in culture and realities at the same time it modernizes the existing NAFTA, said Martin Ley, president of Fresh Evolution LLC.
Ley said the trade agreement will help the North American trading block’s competitiveness in the global trade environment.
For Mexico, he said one challenge with the new agreement will be hitting the “reset” button on the structure of unions within the country. According to the terms of the agreement, Mexico must allow greater freedom of unions to organize. At the same time, he said all three countries must see labor efficiencies increase at least as fast as labor costs rise.
Food safety imperatives
Speaking to the blockchain and food safety, Walter Ram, vice president of food safety for the Giumarra Companies, said the technology represents a new storage and communications tool. Like email and the fax machine before it, the technology is the next evolution in how information is distributed.
“It’s not like posting a YouTube video, where I put something on there and the whole world sees it,”he said. “I have to allow you to see it, so basically you still control it and it is much more secure than we’re doing now.”
Ram said one way that blockchain will be used in the industry is a project called Trellis. Last November, the Produce Marketing Association announced a partnership with Purdue University’s Open Ag Technologies and Systems Group (OATS) to create Trellis, a produce-specific framework for electronically exchanging authenticated audit and other customer-required information among trading partners.
For one thing, Ram said the system will transform food safety documents from pdf form to a digital format that can be more easily read and analyzed.
Burns said the system will be able to capture all the “silos” of information and connect them to make the industry more efficient and effective.
Looking to broader food safety issues, Burns said continuous improvement in food safety — and progress toward avoiding future foodborne illness outbreaks — lean on using knowledge gained by produce safety research generated by the Center for Produce Safety and translating that to commercial applications.
“We have to do a better job taking the research from CPS, responding to it and putting it into our operations,” she said.