Potential of transporting perishables by sea instead of by air


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Project:  Potential of transporting perishables by sea instead of by air

Status: Finalized

Start: 1 November 2017

End: 13 December

Commissioning party: Postharvest Network

Organizations involved: Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, Postharvest Network


More than 35 % of the global trade value is transported by air leading to high costs and CO2 emission
Less than 1% of the total transported volume is transported by airlines. However, they account for more than 35% of the global trade value (IATA, 2017). Perishables are one of the goods that are transported by airplane. This is fast and due to the short storage time, it seems often the most favourable option for high value products. However, this means of transport goes along with a high carbon footprint and high costs. For instance, air cargo costs of perishable from Kenya or Brazil to Europe are in average 6.5 times/kg as expensive as sea cargo of perishables. Therefore transport by ship is much more favourable in terms of costs and carbon footprint, but less favourable for transportation time (Vega 2008).

Several product-origin combination have potential for shipment by sea
The Postharvest Network facilitated a scoping study to investigate the potential for transporting agro-products by sea instead of by air. The fascinating outcome of this study is that several product-origin combination show potential for shipment. Opportunities especially exist when the maximum storage time of the product is equal or longer than the shipment time. The low hanging fruits concerning origin of the products are for instance:

  • papayas, melons, physalis, peaches/nectarines, and chilies from a wide variety of origins
  • fine vegetables (like for instance asparagus) and carnations from various countries in Latin America
  • blueberries from South Africa
  • legumes from Senegal, South Africa and Egypt.

However, even in cases when the product-origin combinations do not look favourable in a first screening sea cargo might still be possible as the shelflife of products can often be extended due to a variety of measures like for instance:

  • careful selection of the variety
  • proper cold chain management
  • improved packaging
  • post-harvest methods
  • use of CA-Reefers.

Shipping, without doubt, requires that agri-logistics in the country of origin is suitable for perishables. In addition, before designing a new value chain it is advisable to make an inventory of existing experiences with particular varieties in long-term cold storage or transport and to conduct one or more pilot or laboratory experiments to verify the feasibility of the product/market combination.

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IATA (2017). The value of air cargo: air cargo makes it happen.
Vega, H. (2008). Air cargo, trade and transportation costs of perishables and exotics from South America. Journal of air Transport Management Vol. 14(6), pp. 324-328.