Sustainability in the Produce Industry

with Tamara Muruetagoiena

Sponsored by:
Driscoll's logo

Sustainability and its practices are constantly changing. Companies are seeing the value of having a dedicated team member to help navigate and speak to these changes.

In a special episode of Fresh Takes on Tech, I’m joined by Tamara Muruetagoiena, our new ​​Director of Sustainability at International Fresh Produce Association, to talk about her new role at IFPA and sustainability.

Join us as we discuss:

  • What Tamara is excited to accomplish at IFPA
  • How the produce industry is adopting sustainability practices
  • The role of policy and regulation in sustainability and some of the things slowing down the adoption
  • The next season of Fresh Takes on Tech

To hear all the freshest interviews in the produce industry, subscribe to Fresh Takes on Tech on Apple, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.

Listening on a desktop & can’t see the links? Just search for Fresh Takes on Tech in your favorite podcast player.


Tamara Muruetagoiena

Tamara Muruetagoiena

Vice President, Sustainability



Vonnie Estes, IFPA
Hello today, we have a special guest. we have Tamara. Tamara is the new as of April 1st director of sustainability at international fresh produce association. She comes to us with deep experience and knowledge in sustainability and environmental conservation.

She has worked across public private non-profit and academic organizations. She's no stranger to the produce industry. Having spent six years at Driscoll's in sustainability roles. Welcome to the podcast and welcome to IFPA.

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
So please say a little bit more about your background and how you ended up at IFPA.

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
So my background, I am a full-blown sustainability professional, as you mentioned. I started my career 23 years ago. And, at that point I realized that I wanted to turn an obsession into a profession because this is all I could think about all the time. I think about the environment and our impact in.

In this planet and what legacy do we leave behind? And so that's how I built a whole career out of that. I, as you mentioned, I started in government. I started working at the European union, and, I moved on to becoming a scientist into academia and then. I worked my way on to the corporate world.

And now IFPA gives me this opportunity to look at broadly at the whole industry, an industry that I care so much about produce and floral. And so looking at all the companies, all the challenges and, but also all the opportunities and the wonderful work that people are doing and being able to lead the path and sustainability.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
o it's interesting. during that whole time of building your career, when you started there, It wasn't a career path and sustainability right there weren't jobs that said, you know, you're the head of sustainability. So it kinda explain how that happened. That, you know, you were working as something you were passionate about and then it became a job title. Like, what was that like? and how did that work?

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
That is a great question, because I think about it all the time. when I started, no, there was nothing, there was no sustainability title. There was, you know, more or less, there were some environmental professionals, but they were working on technical aspects of the environment. And so I started working on environmental policy, agriculture fisheries policy at the European union with always with an, an environmental lens to it.

But in government I felt that. We didn't go deep enough into the, into those areas into those subject matters. And so I thought, well, I want to be one of those experts that we sometimes hire and we ask them, you know, what is this? So I went to, I went back to school, I got another degree. And then I became a scientist and I worked in science for a number of years, doing my own science and working with other scientists to really.

I understand, better, the whole environmental world. and then I realized that for me personally, so I I'm trained as a, as an ecologist. And so that's my scientific background, but I also have an MBA and then those two together form corporate sustainability. And but early in the two thousands, it was the first time that you would see the title sustainability in companies. And now you could have a chief sustainability officer, which is truly amazing, in corporate, but also in academia and also in government, there's a person or a team that leads the whole work.

And that's something that. It was never done before. It was very much all over the place. I think we're still trying to find our fooding as professionals, because we're, we work in different areas, but I think there's more cohesion with time.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
Yeah, I think it's our first guests in this series, Joel who is the founder of GreenBiz journal. And it was interesting. the, he has, over the years, like they have conferences with sustainability officers and we talked a lot about just the importance of having. Someone that's in charge of it, but also having it permeate through the whole organization.

And you're seeing that happening more to that. It's not just one person that's like hiding in the back office. It's actually, you know, something that companies are embracing and it's part of everything that they do. So it's been interesting for me to watch that evolution tell us about your role at IPA. I know you just started and, you're gonna make this role your own as you learn more about it, but what are you excited to do?

What do you see as your role? What, you know, what do you think you're stepping into here?

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
I think that something that I can do in this role is that we have. many members in the association and a good number of them, they probably have a sustainability team and, some others don't, but they're probably focused on their company, their thing, and what they're doing, their challenges, but what we can bring.

This added value that we can bring to all of our members is to really understand the whole scope, to bring new technologies and bring new ideas, bring together thought leadership. so we can support the efforts that all these companies are doing already on their own or they're trying to do on their.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
Yeah, I think it's. So important. And we certainly hear from members whenever we asked members, what are the top things that they care about? Sustainability is definitely near the top.

And so, bringing you on. Shows that the organization takes us very seriously and we see how important it is. And we really want someone dedicated to looking at this and helping these companies. As you said, you do what you do, what's in front of you. But the whole point of an association is to have the thought leadership.

And I think having you in this role is going to. Allow people to have someone to come to, to ask questions. And then also just you giving your view and what's possible for the industry.

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
Yeah, exactly. And I think that because we have a. Escape view that companies naturally do not have because they're more siloed in there. And inside their world, we provide that landscape view that is so powerful to them. And so, so enriching to all of them and bring them together to, to, to.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
And learn from each other, right.

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
Learn from each other. Exactly. Because sustainability is all about learning is all about continuous learning. You're always, continuous improvement and, and just being more aware of what your practice is.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
So how do you think about sustainability in the produce industry specifically? And I know. Just even within agriculture, we hear a lot of people talk about sustainability and it tends to be more focused on the row crops and what they're doing. So for our industry and produce in Florida, how do you think about sustainability and what are some of the differences?

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
Mostly is somewhat similar to the rest of the industry. but there, there are a couple of areas that are very distinct. so for example, the whole packaging area of sustainability is very much associated with produce row crops, you know, cereal and, others, do not have that challenge or less of that challenge.

Um, we're very challenged by, packaging. Another one is labor where very labor-intensive industry versus other agricultural industries. If you think of corn, you have one person with a machine, for acres and acres. And here in produce, I think that most people don't know that you have this field.

Pat with people who are picking the produce. And so, the labor and the people aspect of the industry is really important. everything else I think it's shared, across industry. So the work that we do around carbon or climate change, Water waste or energy, or soil management. That's, you know, we'll have to do that work and they're all we'll have impacts there, but I think that labor and packaging makes us very unique.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
No, those are excellent points. I hadn't thought of those two specifically, but yeah, when you look at so many things that we grow end up in a package, because if they weren't in a package, then you'd have more food waste. And so you're balancing off these, you know, two different things that we have to deal with food waste and plastic, and there's a lot of work and it's where.

You, and my world's kind of intersect, you know, there's a lot of work looking at the technology of what, what can we do to improve this, to have less plastic and continue to have less food waste. And then the labor issue, as you say is just huge. And we're, you know, we're looking at different ways to automate and help and use less labor and have labor do less difficult tasks.

But as you say, it's very different in a field of produce than it is corn. So, it's a constant. So, can you tell us, how the produce industry is adopting some of the sustainable practices? just what you've seen in your career and looking specifically at produce, give some examples of, what companies are doing, in the sustainability area.

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
Well, I have to say that in my view, across the industry, They were very shy about what they do. they think they don't do much, and I think they do more than they think they do in general. And so they're not about showing off for the most part. So you have to pull it out of each company to understand what they're doing because they're not talking constantly about, oh, I do this and do that mostly because produce is a brand.

World for the most part, there are some brands that are easily recognized by people, but for the most part produce is just, you know, huge category with no brands. Whereas the brand world, they love to show cast sustainability. They're constantly talking about sustainability. But in produce, you have to pull it out of them, but the association has done a good job at that and creating some case studies.

So, you know, some, some members can learn from what others are doing in, in that area. I'm constantly blown away by how creative they all are. with sustainability and I've seen some incredible things and I can't, I don't like to pick favorites, but I want to, you know, highlight some cause I think they're all wonderful.

And they'll try. And so, just a couple of examples that either I have seen, or there are found unusual, one of them in it's, luminary. In California, well is bigger than in California, but in their headquarters in California, they have, they started this solar farm and they have created this whole strategy to be completely, energies sufficient.

And so that's their whole LoDo and that has been really powerful. And they've been very driven in that space. and no matter where they grow, they keep that strategy. another good example is, a company that I came across reading about them in South Africa, CZ , and I think they have such a catchy name too. and they. They are really focused on an ecosystem approach to farming and, ecosystem and precision farming all at the same time, that very mindful of what the impacts they have, but also how doing precise, farming, which is truly incredible. their original focus was soil health. And having good soils.

And so they started doing this incredible composting program themselves because they couldn't access compost from other sources to amend the soil, create healthy soils. reduce them on a water they used and et cetera. And that's really a powerful.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
I think it's interesting what you said at the beginning that, People are kind of shy about what they do or you have to kind of pull it out of them. And they probably wouldn't say here are all of my sustainable practices and here are my other practices. So part of it is just even defining. And I think, you know, some of the case studies that, that.

Has worked on is really kind of going to people and helping them uncover, like this is a sustainable practice. And I think that's part of what your role will be as well as just helping people see the great stuff they're already doing and kind of showcasing that. And having people share with each.

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
Right. Yeah. I mean, many of them have not embedded sustainability into their, strategy, you know, corporate strategy, you know, it's just something that they do, but they do it. And so because of that, I think that. yeah, it's important to us to get it out of them because they're really making an effort.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
So what role does policy and regulation play in the adoption of sustainable practices and the produce industry?

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
Well, I think, that is a huge, I think a driver for sustainability, Sometimes a little old fashioned because everything that comes from government comes the law a few years behind other trends, but it's true that, re whereas, well, this is a little hard to, you know, it's hard because sometimes, the regulators have come with restrictions for, farming practices that have.

Being seen by the industry as restriction of their, or limitation of their tools in their toolbox and really, limiting or, their yields, making everything more expensive, more costly, more, more complex. But I think that the government has come. Of course with good intentions. And so I think what the struggle is to just put the two together, there's also quite a bit of requirements coming from retailers.

So there, the industry is being asked by not only the policy world, but also the retailers on their practices. So I think that in many of. Many of the companies are small and it could be really overwhelming to them. so I think that, It's important that government needs to understand that they need help.

They need a little bit of holding hands until they really can report what they're doing or limit what they are or changing their practices, et cetera. very much like it happened with, with food safety in the past, that is food safety in terms of regulations and compliance. I don't know, maybe 15 years ahead of sustainability. and they have more or less their act together. I think, whereas in sustainability is a little harder, cause it comes from different places and different, different requirements. Sometimes there could be water requirements. Sometimes they could be about, fertilizer use pesticides for sure. It et cetera.

So it's, it comes from very different places. And also, it varies by region. So some of the requirements are federal. Some of them are state some of the companies, pro produce in different states. So it's hard for them to adapt to the requirements in one versus the other, and then their supply chains.

I think it's good and it's driving the industry in the right direction, but it's hard to comply with sometimes.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
Yeah, it's certainly imperfect. And then you add in global on top of that and when people are trying to ship things out of the country, and I think with a lot of these regulations, what ends up happening is the producer ends up having to bear the cost and take on the risk of. Adopting new practices.

And so I think that's tough. So it is I'd love to see ways where, and I think the USDA is trying to help and, you know, putting money and doing grants and, you know, trying to help and not having industry bear all the risk, but I it's difficult. Cause everyone, everyone wants this, but someone has to pay for it. Right. Cause it is many times more costly to transition into new types of practices. So yeah.

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
Because, in the produce industry except for organically grown. So, USDA organic, there's not a price hike for organic, for sustainable practices. So you've written the cost. You might have a wonderful story to tell on your website, but you know, people are not going to pay more for you. And so, or I mean, sometimes they might, but it's not a given, so it's a little tough for the industry.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
I think that's, I wanted to talk next about some of the things that are slowing down the adoption of sustainable practices. And I think that's certainly one of them is that it, some of these practice costs more, but you don't make any more money. And so that's definitely a barrier. Are there other barriers that you see that kind of slow down adoption?

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
I think that, well I think the nature of the industry, and the plants themselves and how, you know, susceptible they are to weather changes. That for example, that's, that's that CR that creates a lot of stress in the industry, you know, weather issues or pest outbreaks. and, or, you know, they're having supply chain issues or food safety issues or labor shortages, and you're trying to do something else, but then you have this, you know, bigger fish to fry.

Cause you know, you might not even make it to market. And so you might have to leave your sustainability practices aside or tame them a little bit because all of these external. Factors. it's yeah, so fresh produce and flowers are so sensitive to so many changes. external factors that, are really hard to control and that it's could be a huge competitor for, you know, the good work they want to do in sustainability.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
So my last question, what are three things that companies in the produce industry can do to be more sustainable the world? According to Tamara?

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
Things, the world, according to Samar, well, you know, three things that they can do themselves. I mean, many of the things that they could do are dependent on others. So if I'm not gonna say packaging, because it depends on, do you have the right products, et cetera. So don't things that they could do on day one and.

Um, so one of them is, there's the source of their energy. They can, purchase, renewable energy. that's a powerful and strong one. And if they can invest in renewable energy in their operations also, that's one thing that they could do themselves. and it's very important for our work on climate change.

The other one is, I highly recommend every operation to hire, or to contract, integrated pest management expert because, that person or that group could see, could take a good look at the operation and their practices and truly help. Most efficient, pesticide use and pest management in general with different practices.

So that's another one and the third one, and this is a big one. I also think that companies should, invest, trained. There are people in the field in, plant nutrition. So, you know, efficient use of fertilizer because, if you know, efficiently use, you know, use better your fertilizer or you are not only being more sustainable by your cutting costs at the same time, but in my view, you know, ideal view of the world, what I would really love to see in the area for licensure.

Compost being more cost-effective organic third fertilizer to being most more cost-effective because now, it's a price hike for four producers, but, the environmental impacts of it, are significant. And so, yeah, that's my kind of wished for the future.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
Yeah, and I think that as we know things going on in the world right now, that's only going to get worse and having availability of fertilizer and the cost is going to continue to go up. And, I know organic growers are really looking for. Sources and different ways to have fertilizer. And so I think there's a number of different technologies that are trying to figure out how do we get, you know, more nutrition in the soil in a better way.

That's better for the environment. So I'm with you on that one. Well, I agree with all three of those are great. Well, thank you so much for your time today. And, I'm lucky that I'm going to get to talk to you frequently. So I look forward to working together and, thanks for your time.

Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA
Well, thank you so much for inviting me. This is, I feel really honored to already speak, you know, speak my voice, through this PO podcasts. Thank you. And I also look forward to working with.

Vonnie Estes, IFPA
Thanks. So with that discussion, that ends our season focused on sustainability. After a short recess of a couple of weeks, we'll come back with the season, teasing out the differences and similarities between produce that has an organic label. Is grown using regenerative practices and, or has grown in a greenhouse server vertical farm.

So I'm really excited about this topic. This is a journey that I personally want to go on to try to understand these differences and what it means to consumers. so we'll look at what's better for you. What's better for the planet and where technology can have an impact in these different ways of producing food. So thank you and see you soon.

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