Across rows and rows of agricultural beds tucked into the arid area on the western coast of Peru, asparagus, blueberries and avocado grow, fed by tubes that slowly dispatch water, protected by beneficial insects that keep pests at bay.
It’s not an uncommon scene at one of Viru’s produce fields. Since 1994, the Peruvian agro-industrial producer has amassed a portfolio of preserved, frozen and fresh fruits and vegetables – from green asparagus to artichokes, from acai to mango, blueberries, avocado, strawberry – along with sauces and ready meals. Viru works on their foundation of sustainable practices with the aim of upholding the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Today, they manage a whopping 30,000 acres in Peru with sustainability at the forefront of operations.
“We always say that we work today with tomorrow in mind,” says CEO Yoselyn Malamud. “[We are] constantly evolving to be a 100% green company, reducing consumption, reusing all our waste and betting on sustainable development.”
Embrace a Circular Economy
Environmental innovation is at the heart of this work. The company has a comprehensive R&D Team where staff hone cutting-edge solutions to common agricultural sustainability questions – how to preserve and recycle water, or how to reduce the use of pesticides, for instance. The agricultural industry is responsible for some 70% of all freshwater withdrawal globallyally, while the widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture, a result of growing demand for high yields, is responsible for the run-off of toxins into nearby land and waterways. Agricultural runoff is the leading cause of water quality impacts to rivers and streams in the U.S.; 2 million tons of pesticides are used annually worldwide.
Viru aims to reduce its contribution to both problems. The company runs 100% of its used industrial water flows through a wastewater treatment plant, where it is treated for reuse in the irrigation of garden, green areas and a pilot forest. On the other side, the water we use for our crops is sent into an automated drip irrigation system, which delivers water slowly, in a trickle, directly to the roots of plants. Drip irrigation is said to be the most efficient method for growing crops, in contrast to sprinkler systems, for instance.
“Not a drop [goes] missing,” Malamud says of Viru’s consumed water, noting that the company’s drip irrigation system has exceeded 95% efficiency. In 2022, the company reduced its water consumption by 24%, recovering around 530 million US gallons.
This tactic was at first necessary, Malamud admits – the regions where the company first started growing its crops were sandy, and required drip irrigation. That launched a legacy of innovation in drip irrigation equipment, which the company then replicated to other areas where it grows.
“We are inspired by the circular economy principles,” Malamud says. “Within a circular economy, all waste is reused; we are [aiming] in the next years to achieve the extraordinary goal of reusing 100% of our waste.”
Insects Can Be Valuable Employees
And to protect crops from pests? The company breeds and employs its own “biological agents,” Malamud says, like insects and fungi, which act naturally to suppress pests. This is part of a broader strategy called “integrated pest management” (IPM), in which growers monitor the biology of pests to assess threats, and work with this knowledge to create a natural strategy for preventing infestations, using beneficial insects, pest-resistant plants, and the like. Malamud says Viru relies in particular on the green lacewing (Chrysoperla carnea) and the spined soldier bug (Podisus nigrispinus), which feed on aphids and gypsy moth caterpillars, respectively.
The company first adopted IPM 20 years ago, Malamud says, in collaboration with Cornell University researchers who helped Viru develop the infrastructure, breeding protocols and employee training necessary. They first piloted the practice on asparagus crops; today, the company uses it for avocados and artichokes, as well.
These conservation practices, in sum, have earned Viru’s “green field” certification.
Investing in Sustainable Practices is an Investment in Business
Malamud says principles of sustainability come “very naturally” to her team at Viru. “The first lesson is that when you act for preserving the environment you are doing well also for the company development,” she says. She gives the example of avocado crops – conserving all parts of the avocado, not just the fruit, but the skin and core, has opened up new revenue streams in the form of avocado oil.
“You can think that is an “additional cost” to be sustainable, but on the contrary, it helps you to be more productive,” she says. Today, that mindset extends to all facets of its operations. The company is looking to expand its use of solar energy to power its agricultural fields and industrial plants, and will be using a greenhouse gas emissions monitoring tool to develop pollution reduction strategies in coming years. Both projects serve Viru’s four-pillar sustainability mission, which also includes committing to its staff and communities.
“We all agree that we are part of an ecosystem,” she says. “Companies cannot survive as independent elements, but they need to be part of the ecosystem where they act and be the engine of a positive transformation. We are part of one big family: our planet.”