For people buying tomatoes, numbers like 986 hectares of tomato cultivation mean very little. Yes, it's many football fields, but what else? Nothing. Percentages are also tricky. Twenty percent lower CO2 emissions. Fine, but what does that mean? Quite a lot, according to the folks at the Azura Group.
The packaging plant
This French-Moroccan tomato producer indeed has almost 1,000 hectares of tomatoes. They've decided to measure, reduce, compensate, and communicate their CO2 emissions in the chain. From March 2021, '100% carbon neutral' will be emblazoned on all Azura brand Moroccan tomato packaging. These can be found in the major European supermarket chains.
The Azura Group doesn't only grow tomatoes. It includes herbs, edible flowers, and clams - a sea creature - in its assortment too. The company wants to tell consumers about the sustainability steps they've made. And the steps that still need to be taken in the chain. This grower's tomatoes come from Morocco, from close to Agadir. That's more than 800 kilometers by road from Tangier, just below the Strait of Gibraltar.
If you zoom in on Google Earth, you'll see a patchwork of greenhouses there. This family business, founded in 1988, uses many of these to cultivate tomatoes. The company now markets round and oval cherry tomatoes. They also have smaller, mixed red, yellow, orange, and dark brown cherry tomatoes and larger, round vine tomatoes. All these now have the Azura Group's special logo and a QR code on their packaging. As far as they know, they're the first to take this remarkable step. And they're eager to discuss it.
Water and warmth
The company wants to provide more information about its sustainability process, especially for consumers. "It fits in with the course the newly appointed board chose last year," says Céline Montauriol. She's been the Azura Group's Head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for just over six months. When we spoke to her via a video link, Montauriol was in Morocco. Azura has greenhouses there in Agadir and an office in Casablanca.
Montauriol is close to the action but understands that all the changes don't translate well to European customers. She points out that the company started the sustainability process on its own initiative. It communicates this on its products' packaging too. "For us, it's not a bonus, but a must. We want to be a sustainability partner for supermarkets, not just producers."
In 2010, Azura did its first 'Life Cycle Assessment' to work out its environmental impact. This was reassessed last year. The company did the entire test according to the international ISO-standards 14040 and 14044. The result? There was a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to 2010, as mentioned above. Today, producing a kilogram of Azura tomatoes releases 1.26 kg of CO2 from 'farm to fork'.
Facts and feelings
"Our biggest advantage is that we don't heat or use lights in our greenhouses," continues Montauriol. That's thanks to North Africa's favorable climate. On the other hand, they use a lot of water. "You use more in a warm climate." That's always led to discussions about choosing between domestic and imported products on the shelves.
"We've noticed this too and see that European countries often prefer local products. Sometimes there's also a bit of politics involved. Decisions aren't always based on hard facts. Feelings and perception play a role too. It's up to us to show that we don't only grow good, healthy tomatoes; we do so sustainability. That will certainly benefit the world, the environment, and tomatoes' shelf position."
The Azura Group's motto is 'measuring is knowing'. And that sometimes produces remarkable results. "People often frown on logistics because of its CO2 emissions," says Céline. She attributes this party to the social debate around cars. People consider this mode of transport in a negative light, due to it being a polluter. However, along the entire tomato chain, logistics is responsible for a fairly small amount of CO2 emissions.
"Half of our CO2 emissions come from the tomatoes' production phase." She's referring to the sustainability report that was drawn up. It compares Azura's farming methods to cultivation like heated conventional greenhouses in France. The packaging chain has the second-highest CO2 emissions, with logistics coming in third place.
Packaging with the Azura name in France/French supermarkets with its logo/QR code
"Companies must nevertheless continue to take steps on all fronts," adds the CSR Manager. She used to work in the French grain sector, helping another company take these steps. Biodiversity is only one of the significant challenges facing that sector. At Azura, in concrete terms, packaging should change from a sustainability point of view. "All the plastic we use for packaging tomatoes is already recyclable r-PET."
"Unfortunately, this isn't yet the case in all our sales countries. That's one of the reasons we're looking at 100% plastic-free packaging. We, and our packaging partners, are looking into cardboard. We may be able to present a new idea in this area this year. The challenges remain the tomatoes' shelf life and good visibility on the shelf. People must also be able to see the product in its package. Also, making cardboard uses a lot of water. That's still preventing us from opting for only cardboard."
And then, a large producer like Azura must also consider buyers in each country's packaging requirements. "But one thing's certain. Our fragile products need to be packaged. This makes them durable and easy to transport. In Morocco, we pack everything ourselves, and then the product is transported. The tomatoes must look their best when they reach clients," Montauriol concludes. And nice-tasting tomatoes are most important to consumers. That's in addition to all the information about them measuring and learning about them.
Azura is also involved in social projects.
The Azura Group was founded in 1988 when it opened its first cultivation facility. Today, this French-Moroccan tomato producer has 986 hectares of greenhouse cultivation. That's partly thanks to a €40 million investment. The company expanded its acreage by 100 hectares over the past two seasons.
The group has 46 hectares of herbs and farms edible flowers and clams too. In 2019-2020, it had a turnover of €304 million. Tomato and herb products made up 89% of this.
Azura farms in the Agadir region and has an office in Casablanca. The group works with a logistics center in Perpignan, France, and service providers in Germany and the United Kingdom.
These three countries make up its top sales markets. Although, in the winter, Azura tomatoes can be found in the Netherlands, too, under private label. Only in France does Azure sells under its own brand.
The Azura Group is strongly committed to sustainability. The company requested the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands' help to measure its environmental impact. They calculated that it costs the tomato producer €0.30 to offset a kg of tomatoes' ecological footprint.
The company compensates for almost 192,000 tons of CO₂ annually. To achieve this, the group works with Climate Partner. Azura's helped set up a wind farm in the Tangier-Tétouan region in Morocco and a rain forest protection project in Tambopata in Peru.
The company wants to make progress in the area of water consumption too. So, it aims to stop using groundwater by 2022 entirely. It wants to switch to using water from a special desalination project. This converts ocean water into use for cultivation.