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When Agribusiness Gives You Lemon Pulp, Make Biofuel

In Argentina, one of the world's biggest citrus producers is recycling its farming waste as fuel and fertilizers.

Picking lemons at Argentina's Citrusvil farm
Picking lemons at Argentina's Citrusvil farm
Juan I. Martínez Dodda

BUENOS AIRES — Citrusvil, one of the world's biggest lemon exporting firms, is a top investor in state-of-the-art techniques to eliminate waste, curb pollution and recycle farming byproducts. The Argentine firm, which produces about one-third of all lemon juice concentrate sold worldwide, turns fruit remains and processing waste into fertilizer and enough biogas to partly fuel one of its two processing plants.

The firm farms 23 estates, totaling more than 30 square miles, and turns part of its 330,000 tons of fresh fruit into products like lemon essence oil, juice concentrate and dry peel. An outstanding feature of its activities is that it avoids pouring effluents into the environment, thanks to recycling, while its biogas provides 35% of the fuel needed by one of two processing plants.

The Coca-Cola company reportedly buys 60% of Argentina"s concentrated orange juice production, and 30% of its lemon and grapefruit juice concentrate (Ledesma is another local supplier), which means processing 80,000 tons of oranges, 15,000 tons of grapefruits and 170,000 tons of lemons.

"We were pioneers at the worldwide level"

Citrusvil's Head of Business Operations Hernán Ruggiero explains that the state-of-the-art process sends all pulp and waste into a biodigester where yeasts consume the solid material and turn it into carbon dioxide and methane. "This not only allows us to produce biogas but the waste waters, the remaining liquid, is used to irrigate 500 hectares of lemon plantations," Ruggiero explains.

The farm's 10,000 cubic meters of daily waste become gas and compost after passing through the biodigester. "We were pioneers at the worldwide level in using this technique based on the lemon industry, and also in being zero effluent producing biogas," says Ruggiero.

Previously Citrusvil treated its effluents aerobically, in artificial lakes. To create its biodigester, which treats wastage more efficiently and allows a fuel byproduct, it worked with Biotec, a Belgian firm specializing in the treatment of agro-industrial effluents. Each ton of processed fruit produces 16 cubic meters of biogas. Today, Citrusvil operates three biodigesters and saves itself more than $550,000's on its natural gas bill annually.

At the Citrusvil farm — Photo: GRUPO LUCCI

Argentina is the world's principal producer of yellow lemons (80% of which are produced in the northeastern Tucumán province), and a leading exporter to northern hemisphere countries, mainly in Europe. It effectively shares world markets with its main competitor, South Africa.

Citrusvil has four main products: fresh lemons, lemon essential oil (used in fizzy drinks, sweets or perfume), lemon juice concentrate and dry peel, which are sold in 100 countries.

These are four businesses, says Ruggiero, which are "very different, and all have high added value. Contrary to what people think, the product with most added value is fresh fruit where the workforce represents 50% of the cost. Think of a fruit that is going straight to the consumer and needs to be picked carefully, which adds very considerably to value per unit."

Citrusvil emerged in 1970 as part of an existing firm Viluco, which was established in 1962 in Tucumán. Its Italian founder, Vicente Lucci, had arrived practically penniless in Argentina. Today his sons, Daniel and Pablo Lucci, run an expanded firm with an annual turnover of $300 million. Other activities include grinding soy for Hi-Pro flour, which is used to feed animals, biodiesel production and some livestock farming.

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