Food firm commits to sustainability

“I decided that protecting natural resources was of the highest priority”, Roberto González Barrera, GRUMA’s Founder and Chairman tells World Finance


After consolidating his operations in Mexico and Latin America, and successfully entering the US market, Roberto González Barrera, founder, chairman of the board and CEO of GRUMA (a world leader in the production and distribution of corn flour, corn and wheat tortillas, and an important player in totopos and flat breads), established in 1982 in Edinburg, Texas, his first corn flour processing plant in the US. There, he faced strict environmental regulation, which led him to install dust collectors, reduce emissions into the atmosphere, and build water treatment plants to preserve vital liquids.

Later, in 1989, he built his second plant in Plainview, Texas, for which he introduced more advanced environmental technology, such as air scrubbers, for dust collection and additional energy savings.

Since then, Roberto González Barrera was convinced that protecting the environment could not only constitute more profitability for his companies in the future, but also create business value and allow them to comply with increasingly stringent regulations. “I realised that in the world there was a growing concern to care for the environment, water and energy shortage and environmental pollution. That is why I decided that protecting natural resources was of the highest priority, and that it would help anticipate more stringent regulations I saw coming in every country”, says Barrera.

Therefore, the entrepreneur asked his technology expert Manuel Rubio Portilla, an engineer of Cuban origin, to focus his efforts on technological research and development to accomplish that objective. Manuel Rubio, now recognised as “the father of the GRUMA technology”, had been working for decades to develop cutting edge technology under one slogan: that all GRUMA technology should be 10 years ahead of existing know-how.

Now, his challenge was to focus on developing technology with more environmental advantages, mainly in five areas:
– Gas consumption reduction
– Potable water consumption reduction
– Gas emission reduction
– Solid waste discharge reduction
– Waste water discharge reduction.

With the second generation of the Rubio engineers, Felipe Rubio Lamas, current chief technology officer (Corn Flour and Tortilla Production), an R&D programme was implemented. It has had very impressive results in the five areas mentioned.

For Felipe Rubio, “the challenge of getting better results through the current GRUMA technology is not a utopia. The company’s industrial flour method – compared to the traditional process used by thousands of tortilla microindustrialists – not only allows for less water and gas consumption, but it also makes possible water reuse and recycling and the reduction of emissions into the atmosphere of the group’s flour plants”. Rubio shares some concrete results.

Gas savings
The GRUMA process allows for over 40 percent gas savings, as compared to cook corn in the traditional process. Given such large production volumes, these savings amount to meeting the energy needs of 347,000 households a year.

Less water consumption
The GRUMA corn flour technology allows for 60 percent drinking water consumption savings, which would be sufficient for the annual supply of this liquid to a city of 121,500 inhabitants.

Less gas emissions
GRUMA technology allows for the reduction of greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere – an equivalent of 75 million tons of CO2 a year. This figure amounts to the CO2 emission of 28,000 new model vehicles circulating two hours a day, for one year, at a speed of 80km an hour.

Solid waste discharge reduction
The current GRUMA process drastically reduces domestic drainage and sewerage problems, as a consequence of the elimination of 73 percent of all solid wastes, which amounts to the annual sanitary wastes of a city of 4.8 million inhabitants.

Less waste water discharges
The GRUMA technology reduces 60 percent of all waste water discharges. Only at the Evansville, Indiana plant, waste water discharges are reduced by 85 percent, which amounts to 710 cubic meters a day, a volume that would supply potable water to a town of 5,000 inhabitants.

The years to come
“The interest and care of the environment are not new tasks for GRUMA”, says Sylvia Hernández, chief global marketing officer of the Mexican multinational.  She also remembers that “practically since its origin in 1949, GRUMA has been characterised by its constant investment in the development of leading edge technology for corn milling”.

The most recent GRUMA technological advancements consist of enhancing the corn cooking method, which will allow for even more resource savings, compared to the current GRUMA technology.

About $63m have now been invested in the introduction of the new GRUMA technology, to make it more environmentally friendly. Twenty percent of the company’s corn flour production units have now been converted into the new technology, whereas the rest will be converted in the following years.

The mission foods case
Given the prevailing industrial and market characteristics in the US, GRUMA Corporation, a subsidiary of the Mexican multinational in that country and first source of revenues for GRUMA worldwide, was chosen in 2008 to spearhead an ambitious long term sustainability project called “For a Better Tomorrow”, which will soon reach global levels.

In the future, the company will renew its energy sources to adopt aeolic and solar energy. In this sense, the Los Angeles, California Panorama facility is an outstanding example, for it has solar panels to supply clean energy for the administrative areas, as well as for all the computing equipment used by its personnel.

Sustainable packaging
A novel GRUMA Corp. initiative, for products sold under the Mission brand, is the optimal use of packing and packaging, to protect its products from any type of damage, contamination or mishandling during their transportation and storage, but with a more positive environmental focus. A few simple ideas include eliminating packaging, designing refillable or reusable packages and producing recyclable packages.

On the medium and short term, the company plans to adopt a sustainability philosophy in all its facilities, zero waste, innovation strategies, as well as to be self-sustainable and clearly contribute towards value generation, amongst other goals.

From Juan Fernando Roche’s perspective, president of Mission Foods in the US, “experiences derived from our operations in the United States, might very well be replicable throughout GRUMA’s global operations”.

For González Barrera, the most important criterion is for each one of these efforts to be self-sustainable, profitable and with a visible social impact. As he points out: “The decision to invest in sustainability has given us very positive surprises. At the beginning, because we discovered that it gave a valuable sense of belonging to our collaborators, and because, unlike what some could think, it has become one of the most profitable projects we’ve been able to adopt, which not only allows us to be a better company, but also to contribute to inherit a better tomorrow to generations after us”.