Asparagus is on the rise. This has been true for some time now. In the UK, demand increased by 540% from 2004-2014, according to Kantar data produced for the British Asparagus Association. Mexico, the third largest global producer, has tripled its asparagus producing acreage in the past decade. Citing a worldwide interest in healthy eating, as well as the vegetable’s widely touted benefits for brain function, immunity, and even cancer-prevention, the latest Future Market Insights report projects that by 2027, 10.3 million metric tonnes (MT) of asparagus will be consumed, accounting for a potential revenue of US $37 billion.
Asparagus Keeps Rising; Shipping Key to Sustainable Growth
While China is the world leader in production, no country exports more asparagus than Peru. The South American nation’s proximity to the equator means mild, consistent weather and scarce rain. This translates to a year-round growing season, and by extension, consistent exports.
The final product finds its way around the world—to the United States (where Peru accounts for roughly 50% of all imports), Western Europe (the leading market, “procuring over [a] 40% share of global revenues”), and even to the super-producer in the east, where Loren Puette, Director of ChinaAg reports, “Fresh asparagus from the US and Peru are perceived within China as being of better quality,” and have become a “status vegetable” in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Asparagus is a perennial plant that requires a dormancy period to initiate the growth of prized new shoots. This typically occurs during a cold season. However, in the consistently moderate and dry coastal regions of Peru, dormancy can be artificially stimulated by withholding irrigation water. Staggering the dry periods is what allows for the year-round harvest that makes Peru such an enticing site for investment in asparagus export operations.
One concern connected to asparagus production around the world, and particularly in Peru, is the vegetable’s tendency to travel by air. A study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology charted the kilograms of CO2 released per kilogram of food. While staples like apples, bananas, carrots, cabbages, and avocados all fell between 0.3 and 1.3, due to its frequent flier miles, asparagus registered at 8.9—a number that led National Geographic to quip about the long carbon shadow cast by such a slender plant.
For producers and exporters, practically this means needing to navigate high and frequently fluctuating freight costs. Last fall, Jeff Friedman of CarbAmericas noted, “The drama of the Peruvian asparagus deal this year is the lack of planes and the inconsistency of freight rates.” An insufficient number of cargo aircraft making the journey between Peru and the US caused the shipping cost per kilo to spike from an average of 80-90 cents, to anywhere between $1-1.50/kilo.
Don Hessel, VP of Grower Relations at Progressive Produce pointed out recently that one solution requires enhancing the efficiency of the ocean waves. Typical marine shipments of asparagus take twelve days to travel from Peru to Miami. With an additional day on either end for loading and unloading, that’s a clean two weeks of travel time, and for asparagus, every day counts.
Crowley Maritime Corporation explains that the water-based vegetable must be shipped between 32°F and 34°F, and even within this tight parameter, asparagus has a three-week shelf life. Hessel reports one shipping line is offering a once-a-week route that spends only six days on the water. This could be the compromise needed to keep shipping costs low while still delivering the fresh produce the US market demands.
Hessel also points out, “Value-added continues to be a growth area in the industry, with many customers adding different (stock-keeping units) to enhance their asparagus sales.” High quality packaging can increase asparagus shelf life and relieve some of the pressure of that ticking delivery clock.
Asparagus is in demand, and that doesn’t seem to be changing. The next question is if sustainable shipping options can evolve to fit the needs of growers and consumers alike.