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Ethylene and the Fresh Produce Supply Chain

Ethylene and the Fresh Produce Supply Chain

When I’m eating blueberries from Chile here in California, I assume that they arrived by air after being picked a couple of days ago. That isn’t necessarily true. Delivery by sea could take weeks from the time they are picked by the grower until they arrive on the shelf at my local grocery store.

In this episode, I talked to Tristan Kaye, Director of Global Marketing and Business Development at It's Fresh about the challenges of shipping fresh produce across the planet while avoiding waste and spoilage.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, up to 45 percent of all fresh produce grown is never consumed. For two reasons. One is food loss. So this is through poor infrastructure, lack of appropriate cold chain, mishandling these sorts of things, or food waste.

Another significant challenge in the supply chain is controlling the levels of ethylene, which is a signaling molecule produced in plants for many things, including maturation and ripening. And it doesn’t take much to have an impact on fruit during shipping.

…kiwi fruit can be sensitive down to four or five parts per billion. So to give that a sort of sense of context, a billion seconds is about 33 years. So it's lik if you're looking for ethylene in kiwifruit, that is the equivalent of trying to find five seconds of a 33-yearr period… But it fundamentally affects all of the elements in terms of the fruit and many vegetables that are developed.

It’s Fresh offers an interesting solution to this challenge. We didn’t go deep into the chemistry of their ethylene control technology. It allows growers to pick fruit a little early and allow it to ripen slowly so that, ideally, it shows up on our local shelves ready to be consumed. Our conversation focused on all the other aspects of the supply chain that illustrate the challenge of getting fruit to market in a condition that consumers expect regardless of where they were grown:

Growers get paid based on what arrives at the destination. They must decide when to harvest their fruit at some interval before ripening, yet they have no control over much of what happens or how long it takes before fruit arrives.

Market pricing and seasonal demand influence the decision of whether to ship by air or sea.

There can be tremendous uncertainties around the time spent in a warehouse at either end. Even shipping routes are facing uncertainty as there is a restriction on what can go through the Panama Canal due to a drought that has Lake Gatun at record low levels. Ships may have to wait in an anchorage at the canal, deliver some containers elsewhere or go around the tip of South America. Conflict near the Suez Canal, or the inability to access the Port of Baltimore might also be a factor right now.

Damaged fruit produces ethylene as a stress response. To top it all off, there is ethylene in the exhaust of internal combustion engines. Warehouses that store fruit may use electric machinery like forklifts, but imagine the challenge of keeping motor exhaust out of your entire supply chain.

The next time you grab a handful of blueberries grown out of season in the other hemisphere, give a thought to all the considerations and decisions that help preserve them from the moment of harvest to the moment you enjoy them.

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