Produce is a low-margin, high-risk industry. Hans Sauter would know – he’s been in the produce game for over 35 years. He’s not only Senior Vice President of Research and Development for Fresh Del Monte, but also Chief Sustainability Officer for the 135-year-old global produce juggernaut.
“I come from a scientific background,” he told The Food Institute on Thursday, “so I try to put numbers and data behind all our products and prioritize where we need to take action. Being part of the tropical operations years ago, I was involved in many of the environmental initiatives, and I understand clearly where and what activities can be improved or made more efficient.”
Sauter is part of the team responsible for Fresh Del Monte’s zero-emissions pineapples; while astronauts at the International Space Station conduct tests and research on zero-g plant and produce development, hundreds of miles below, Sauter has his eyes focused on zero-e pineapples.
In college and later at grad school, Sauter desired to work toward agriculture that was sustainable decades before the idea became buzzworthy.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Sauter said, “at the time, none of that work found an application in reality [for me]. Thirty-five years later, I can drive that change from the top.”
In today’s world of ESG-driven commerce, Fresh Del Monte has created a breakthrough in how produce is grown, cut, transported, and finally sold to today’s savvy customers.
It just happens to be in the form of a pineapple.
Introducing the Del Monte Zero
The Del Monte Zero™ is certified by SCS Global Services, a leader in third-party environmental and sustainability verification, certification, and more. After an extensive assessment of the Del Monte Zero, from the farms where it’s grown in Costa Rica to how it’s handled and transported down the supply chain, SCS determined that the pineapples’ greenhouse gas emissions were negated by the reabsorption of gasses by Fresh Del Monte-owned forests, rendering the pineapples’ carbon footprint net zero. All eight of the company’s Costa Rican pineapple farms achieved full certification.
“One of the greatest satisfactions of this job is that we have a global footprint; if we can demonstrate something to be effective, we can roll it out on a large scale. And our impact is enormous when we’re able to do it,” Sauter said.
First announced in early December, Sauter said Fresh Del Monte has been trying to achieve something similar for years – something sustainable and noteworthy to act as a beacon for produce brands around the world. Sauter began his career at the company’s research stations in the tropics and has had his hands in the dirt – so to speak – ever since.
“I grew up within the company and I knew the value of what was being done at the farms and research centers,” he said.
“I knew how passionate people were about creating a new way of farming. Our farms were curated to include not just production areas but also spaces for forests where we could protect watersheds, pollinators, reduce soil erosion, and capture carbon emissions.”
Over the years, Sauter said Fresh Del Monte became more vocal about how large-scale agriculture could transform itself into a driving force for change. That time has finally arrived. There will be a limited number of Del Monte Zero pineapples in North America and Europe, and the first ones will be available in January.
“Time is incredibly short for the transformations that are needed globally,” he said, “and climate change is with us – it’s here. If we want to avert disastrous outcomes, it’s large players like us who need to lead the way.”
Sauter says Fresh Del Monte had to ensure the consumer had a possibility of supporting such an initiative, and the market never guarantees anything to anybody. Still, Fresh Del Monte felt it was ahead of the curve of contemporary consumer brands with an eye on sustainability and knew it had the infrastructure in place to enact real change with its people, processes, products, and pineapples.
“Produce is a business of very low margins mired by climate impacts, the seasons, the weather, and disease – it’s a high-risk business. We found it necessary to transform and wanted to create a space for the consumer with something of value that they’re asking for. And unless that opportunity is created, the rest of the industry won’t engage, and we’ll all suffer for it. The consumer wants to make a difference with their purchasing decisions. Younger generations are doing it in every sector with every single buying decision – is it more nutritious? Is it good for the planet? Is it grown with care?
“So why not take it to produce?”
Sustainability and Success
Sauter says a crucial aspect of achieving net-zero emissions was overhauling some of the company’s fleet.
“Transportation of tropical products is crucial and takes a lot of energy,” he noted.
It’s a long way from Costa Rica to the ports of North America and Europe, and Sauter knew that roughly 40% of our product emissions are related to transportation. Still, Fresh Del Monte’s leadership felt the opportunity was there, and the company invested over $200 million four years ago to renew many of its oceangoing transportation ships.
“They’ve performed better than we imagined,” he said, “The hulls were updated, have less drag, and the way the vessels move stresses efficiency, not speed, to reduce energy consumption.”
Food waste will be a huge trend and hot button issue in the food industry in 2023, and Fresh Del Monte has made it one of its prime focal points.
“Food waste is one of our planet’s big issues right now,” he said. “Food waste contributes as much carbon emissions as all of China, or roughly 6% of the world. Reducing emissions as a food company and reducing food waste not only makes sense but is urgently needed.”
Sauter said that there are protocols in place at both ends of the supply chain to ensure that its products find a responsible way into the market (and also into the mouths that need it the most). Sauter is particularly proud of some of the global food bank initiatives for products that may not have a viable shelf life in the long-term but could feed someone in the short term.
“We don’t have a fixed number for carbon-neutral pineapples right now because we have a finite limit of carbon we’ve sequestered, and it will depend on which markets we choose to ship those boxes to,” Sauter said. “It’s a starting point, and depending how much traction we get, we’ll try to increase production in the future.”
Pineapples have long been a symbol of hospitality and growing up in Costa Rica meant something even more for Sauter.
“In Costa Rica, forests and farms are intermingled,” he said, “and preserving what we can from nature is part of our culture.”
That mentality has served Sauter (and Fresh Del Monte) well. Today pineapples, tomorrow the world?
“We’re working on bananas!” Sauter laughed, “but it’s one step at a time. I’m sure there will be more to come.”