By Tom Sellen
KANSAS CITY (Dow Jones) — So you think a glass of orange juice is not only healthy but easy on the environment? Not so fast. Nutritious, yes, but that glass of Florida sunshine leaves an unmistakable carbon footprint.
Concerned consumers do have choices. They can turn to more expensive organic products that are equally healthy and claim to tread more softly on Mother Earth. Or they can seek out companies that are trying to reduce their environmental impact.
One company, Tropicana, owned by beverage giant PepsiCo (PEP), is making an effort to reduce its carbon footprint. Tropicana had its flagship Pure Premium Orange Juice certified by the Carbon Trust, becoming the first company to do so in North America. The lifecycle carbon output of a 64-ounce carton is 1.7 kilograms, or 3.74 pounds, the Carbon Trust found.
“A firm commitment to environmental sustainability is in our DNA, so this is a natural step for Tropicana,” Neil Campbell, president of Tropicana Products North America, said in a press release.
People may be surprised at Tropicana’s carbon footprint, however, considering it’s nearly as much as the entire product weighs.
The verification process revealed that over 60% of Tropicana’s carbon emissions are tied to agricultural and manufacturing activities such as grove maintenance, irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide applications. And, it includes crushing the fruit into juice. The remaining 40% is tied up in transportation, packaging, consumer use and disposal.
The foot-printing is part of a wider effort by PepsiCo to reduce its environmental impact by the year 2015, which includes goals of reducing water and energy use by 20% and fuel use by 25% compared to 2006 levels.
A verifiable carbon footprint measures the impact on the environment in the form of greenhouse gases released by an individual, a company or specific product. By identifying the elements, Pepsico can see where and how to make changes.
As for organic orange juice, those associated with its production claim its carbon footprint is much lighter since they use no synthetic herbicides or insecticides and limited amounts of nitrogen-based fertilizer. They have studies to back up the claims. But no organic product has yet been certified by the Carbon Trust.
“The (carbon) reduction is quite sizable,” said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist with the Organic Center in Troy, Ore., of organic production.
Benbrook said about one-third of the total energy use (of conventional citrus) is tied up in fertilizer. “Under organic production, that would probably be cut at least in half,” he said, referencing a 2006 study done by David Pimentel at Cornell University.
The process used to determine Tropicana’s carbon footprint included mapping the production lifecycle from growing the oranges to harvesting and squeezing them, to putting the containers on grocery store shelves and finally disposing of, or recycling, the packaging.
Since Tropicana is the first consumer brand to be carbon-certified in the U.S., there is no comparable data on the market for consumers.
Organic orange juice offers consumers an immediate alternative for those concerned about conventional methods of growing oranges.
“I applaud the efforts of PepsiCo in their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint,” said Matt McLean, a fourth-generation citrus grower and president of Uncle Matt’s Organic Orange Juice in Clermont, Fla.
Citrus has many natural enemies, and growers are accustomed to controlling pests and diseases with synthetic products. Nitrogen fertilizer, made from natural gas and urea, is widely used in global agriculture practices and contributes to global carbon dioxide emissions.
But organic orange production reduces the fertilizer-related energy use by about one-half and the pesticide-related energy use by two-thirds, the Cornell University study showed.
Conventional orange production does return some energy to the environment as livestock feed. Processing plants take the leftover pulp and peel, dry it and turn it into pellets to use as a supplement for livestock rations.
McLean is investigating the possibility of having his organic juice carbon-mapped, but he speculates that his production methods leave a smaller print on the environment.
“I can’t speak to the other growing methods versus ours from the standpoint of a carbon footprint, I can only tell you this: If their nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides are causing them (carbon emissions) to spike, then we have a chance to be lower,” said McLean.
McLean uses only natural sources of nitrogen, such as compost, feather or fishmeal for fertilizer. Natural pesticides such as ladybugs, parasitic wasps, sulfur and oil from the fast-growing neem tree are used to keep harmful insect populations down and to fight disease.
A big advantage of organic orange production in Florida is reduced movement of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers into Lake Okeechobee, along with other surface and groundwater, said Benbrook.
Most of the land surrounding the lake is in agriculture. Whether it is ranching, citrus, vegetable or sugarcane production, the activity contributes to about 92% of the total phosphorus load in Okeechobee, according to information on www.LakeOkeechobee.org. <http://www.LakeOkeechobee.org>
Citrus growers of all stripes have been locked in a battle with industry-threatening diseases the past several years. Bacterial diseases like citrus canker and citrus greening are entrenched in Florida, and synthetic sprays are widely used to combat their spread.
Raymond Royce, a Sebring-based citrus grower and former executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, thinks organic production will hit a wall of disease.
“Given the disease challenges that are in Florida right now, I have a feeling that there are going to be fewer and fewer organic growers if for no other reason that…greening will just kill their trees deader than a doornail within several years,” said Royce.
Citrus canker weakens trees ability to produce a crop and blemishes the fruit. Greening, however, spread by the Asian citrus psyllid insect, kills a tree within one to three years of infection.
It is extremely difficult for a commercial orange grower to produce the volume of oranges needed in organic production to remain viable, Royce explained.
Organic orange juice sales have grown to nearly $20 million a year, McLean estimates – a drop in the bucket compared to annual sales of $1.18 billion for conventional orange juice, data from industry tracker AC Nielsen show.
While conventional production may exact a higher environmental price, consumers must be willing to pay a much higher financial price for a glass of organic orange juice.
The average price of a half gallon of organic is about $5.99-$6.49, McLean said. That compares to just $6.68 for a gallon of conventionally grown not-from-concentrate orange juice.
In the midst of one of the worst recessions since the early 1980s and consumers cutting discretionary spending, that might be a tall order.