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Change of track for fruit and vegetables

Environmental objectives, green taxes and the development of alternatives to road transport are obliging fruit and vegetable carriers to think about the best course for the future. The issue is made all the more complex by the constraints of a fragile product.

Maritime transport can offer a viable alternative to road transport for fruit and vegetables. (Philippe Mahe - Photographer)
Maritime transport can offer a viable alternative to road transport for fruit and vegetables. (Philippe Mahe - Photographer)

Both European and French objectives are ambitious: by 2020, in only eight years, CO² emissions from road transport are to be reduced by 20%. This could be nothing more than wishful thinking unless the public authorities undertake substantial projects to provide alternatives. The current economic environment in Europe has in fact resulted in a slowing down of the development of major road links and railways, along with infrastructure that would favour multimodal transport.

From the carriers' point of view, the economics are the deciding factor. Alternative modes of transport will be used as soon as they present a viable proposition.

For fruit and vegetables, numerous other parameters have to be considered in addition to the cost of transport: packing, collection, stocks, storage, transportation times, etc. All of which make any changes to transport modes more complex.Nevertheless, green taxation will have an impact on the transport of fruit and vegetables. The French association of organizations of fruit and vegetable producers and horticulture, Cerafel , has assessed the cost of the implementation of the new French environmental tax that, after numerous reports, is scheduled to start throughout France in 2013. Only heavy goods vehicles weighing more than 12 tons will be taxed, in order to concentrate on long distance transport, in particular trucks from abroad, and to preserve the SMEs that operate at shorter distances. Half of the revenue from this tax will be used to finance road infrastructure, 35% for the rail network and 15% for river transport. The transport of fruit and vegetables produced in France could generate 300 to 400 million of taxable kilometres every year, representing, on the basis of a rate of 0.12€/km, a cost of €36m to €48m for the first link in the chain, calculates Cerafel's director, Yvon Auffret. It will then be necessary to calculate the distances between distribution centres and shops (or between wholesalers and retailers). We estimate that the total tax on French fruit and vegetables will be around €50m .

A small dent in the billion euros that the new French environment tax should bring in every year.


What solutions are there today for fruit and vegetable carriers who want to change track? Experiments with rail transport have been promising. Several lines have been inaugurated in recent months.

In December 2010 Novatrans added a dedicated fruit and vegetable service between Perpignan and Rungis to its bulk transport lines. After a year of activity, the results appear satisfactory for the company's former sales and marketing director, Jean-Philippe Delmont. 30% of the train transports fruit and vegetables, he reported in December 2010. Rail has shown itself to be competitive for long distances, and the technology is there. Extension into Spain will be a deciding factor in the development of this market.

The service was nevertheless discontinued during the summer of 2011 before starting again in September. It is entirely possible that the proportion of fruit and vegetables will increase to the point that a specialized product could be developed. Jean-Philippe Delmont emphasizes that there is no philanthropy involved in the transporters' use of rail: We offer more competitive rates than road transport, without subsidization. That makes a difference. Novatrans' balance sheet, that showed heavy losses in 2011, could be better according to the president of the Perpignan urban area, Jean-Paul Alduy, who is planning to approach new operators.

There are other trains in France carrying fruit and vegetables, such as the service between Avignon and Rungis or between Rennes and Lyon. The Sica de Saint-Pol-de-Léon , the largest organization of French vegetable producers, is behind the latter project. The Combi-West should enable savings in logistics costs by offering transport in mobile crates that can be transported by trucks. Another line should follow in 2012 between Morlaix and Rungis. A line started in November 2011 between Le Boulou (France) and Barking (United Kingdom) supplying supermarkets in the UK.

More bottlenecks

All of these initiatives may gradually reduce the number of trucks on the roads by transferring capacity to rail, but they could become quickly obsolete. The means of production, including in the agricultural sector, is shifting, observes Rafael Llerena,Manager for Easyfresh Management Office. The trend is for production to move to the Southern Mediterranean countries such as Morocco and Egypt. Transport has become an increasingly important issue at a national and European level without consideration being given to changes in the flow of merchandise in the identification of bottlenecks.

However, Brussels is making efforts to improve services in the Mediterranean. Coastal navigation has proved its relevance with transit times of a few hours to a day or two, notes Bruno Kothe of the national federation of road transporters in the Pyrénées-Orientales (Eastern Pyrenees). This alternative to road and rail requires the introduction of innovative solutions: fluid connections with other methods of transport, simplification of administrative procedures, more flexible customs schedule, etc.

For Mostapha Amri, professor at Agadir's school of business and management, it is also necessary to deal with issues relating to the collection, packaging and storage of Moroccan fruit and vegetables to enable their transport by sea: Currently, 90% of fruit and vegetables leave in trucks, he explains. The authorities have implemented reforms that should enable these figures to change, especially as maritime transport to the south of France is substantially cheaper than going by road.

Lundi 16 Avril 2012

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