Inside the Zurich hub of fresh produce

October 19, 2020

It’s 5am in early April when my roommate and I walk through the entrance of the Zürcher Engrosmarkt, a hub of fresh produce distribution for Eastern Switzerland. This massive container-like facility acts as an anthill to the men and women inside, who have been working tirelessly since 1:30am. We’re greeted by a representative from Marinello, one of the largest fruit and vegetable distributors in Zürich, established around 100 years ago. He has generously taken time this morning to show us around and give us some insights into this step of the food supply chain.

The 40+ food vendors who occupy the warehouse rent out portions of the space per year, sourcing the variety of fresh produce that their buyers demand. They begin their morning separating fruits and vegetables into trays for their various customers, whether that is Coop, a smaller supermarket, or a restaurant. Delivery trucks wait outside, ready to bring the goods to their final destination.

From Swiss potatoes to mangos from Ghana, unripe avocados, artichokes and ripened berries, you can find everything and more than you would possibly need. There are dairy products, herbs and flowers, and some items that I have never before laid eyes upon. Our guide plucks a mint leaf from its stalk and asks us a question. “When you order a mint tea in February, where do you think the mint comes from? Switzerland? Doubtful.”

This leaves a few questions to simmer in my mind. Reflecting on the process of getting such an abundance of local and exotic food into Engrosmarkt every day, there are two conflicting questions:

1. Should we be eating more seasonal products in order to support our local market, ensure freshness and reduce waste?

2. Or should we support international trade and give ourselves and other markets the opportunity to exchange goods, despite lower profits along the supply chain?

As an ambassador for food waste reduction, I opt for supporting the local economy. There are legitimate arguments for both sides, and I think it’s simply necessary to strike a healthy balance between the two. After all, who doesn’t like an avocado from time to time?

The sun rises as we leave the market. The rest of the world is awakening, the shops and restaurants open in an hour, the vendors finish up business and share coffee in the small café adjacent to the market. The knowledge that morning shoppers will soon be picking their produce off the shelves soothes their souls.

We’re moving from an era of many intermediaries getting a small cut to an age of a few large players getting a large cut. Software begins to eat into supply chain, and technology automates the playing field, leaving a few questions to simmer in my mind.

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