Let’s have a look at one more futuristic vision in packaging. The vision departs from the supposition that convenience, and product difference – aspects that were the typical characteristics of food products in the last decade – are taking a backseat in a world now more focusing on making a positive impact on freshness, taste and health, as well as the sustainability of the planet.
Our obsession with fresh food irrespective of season and location fuels developments in extending their life after the moment of harvest until the point of consumption. Ripening is manipulated, and breathing is slowed down through refrigeration and modified atmospheric packaging. But these so-called post-harvest technologies are not only economically and ecologically expensive, they are essentially damage control measures that only slow down the eventual deterioration, which starts the instant a crop is removed from the ground or separated from its parent plant.
For the consumer produce must be fresh, full of texture, succulence and flavour – with the full complement of vitamins and minerals that can only come from natural food that is eaten at its best. Damage control management can’t avoid deterioration in freshness and texture, even worse it can’t avoid that a lot of waste in fresh produce goes around.
How do you solve that problem? Agata Jaworska, a masters graduate from the Design Academy Eindhoven (the Netherlands), designed a way to use the time and space associated with the supply chain to grow fresh produce. Her outspoken thesis (which by the way she wrote in 2007) demonstrates how design thinking can go beyond the operational level of packaging design.
But before we continue please note that the packaging-concept is futuristic, it is a model of how produce could be grown in the future. Nevertheless the concept is worth a serious consideration for further development, Here is the story:
If we enable growth along the way, then we automatically deliver absolute freshness and the consumer can harvest his own food. The result is systemised distribution with zero post-harvest preservation.
Her “Made In Transit” concept focuses on a new system of cultivating (oyster) mushrooms, where the growth is completely embedded in the distribution chain. With this idea one of the functions of the distribution chain, preventing degradation of the perishable product by means of refrigeration, is converted into an active role in the cultivation process with a consumer interaction by harvesting at the time of consumption. It not only creates a shift from “best before” to “harvest on”, but, more importantly, also bypasses harvest labour, which for mushrooms can account for 40% of the overall production cost.
In her thesis Jaworska points out that transportation is normally a dormant time for produce. The food becomes trapped inventory and a lot of energy must be spent keeping it fresh. This means that the distribution system must be fast and the environment must be cool. But freight trucks aren’t the least bit cool. In fact they generate a lot of warmth en route, and that warmth is just what a growing mushroom needs most aside from darkness. In the “Made in Transit” (personally I’d prefer to call it “Cultivated In Transit”) concept, the need to heat the cool environment of the traditional mushroom farm is eliminated and the warmth naturally produced by the transport vehicle is used to do the growing.
Of course the concept doesn’t apply equally to all commodities. Mushrooms, however, are highly perishable, relatively easy to grow and produce a fruit body that is fully edible. There are also varieties that currently cannot reach our supermarket shelves precisely because they are so perishable.
The rice straw mushroom is one such example, with cultivation limited to China, Taiwan and Thailand. The rice straw mushroom begins to liquefy as soon as it is refrigerated and is currently only available in canned form.
The “Made In Transit” idea is not entirely new. We know early harvest of fruit and vegetables and ripening during the time the product ‘sits’ in the supply chain, that does not mean that the design and the thoughts of Agata Jaworska don’t deserve the necessary attention and further exploration.
Burning question is, which products are suitable for on-the-go cultivation and is it feasible to develop this concept further by incorporating combinations (partly on land or in the greenhouse, partly during transportation or storage). It will take a lot more research and development, before packaging trades in its conservation status for an active cultivation one. However it’s worth a try.