Innovation in fruits and vegetables

María J Herrero
December 21, 2023

During 2021, FAO set out to raise the visibility of global fruit and vegetable production

⇨    Create awareness of nutritional and health benefits

⇨    As part of a diverse, balanced diet and lifestyle

⇨    Directing attention to policies aimed at reducing losses and waste of these highly perishable products.

⇨    Support rural development of small producers and retailers.

This is not the first, and it won’t be the last initiative that recognizes the value of fruit and vegetables as the healthiest foods in our food pyramid and acknowledges that their consumption is beneficial for both consumers and the food system as a whole.

As noted in the FAO report, the fruit and vegetable sector contributes towards increasing biodiversity, generating environmental sustainability, and improving the livelihoods of farmers and employees operating along value chains.

Global production of fruit and vegetables is growing, but further progress is still needed for these products to be available to all.

In 2020, more than 887 million metric tons of fruit was produced globally. The majority of this was produced in Asia. Fresh fruit production in Asia reached approximately 516 million tons during the year, whereas Oceania produced the least amount of fresh fruit in 2020.

As the map above indicates, fresh produce production varies significantly by country. The United States, for example, has been importing a large amount of their fresh fruit and vegetables, with imports totaling more than $24 billion in 2019, something they surely want to change and reverse. With global demand increasing, and self-sufficiency is becoming increasingly important, gaining more control of a fluctuating market will be key.

In Europe, the value of fruit and vegetable production reached €73million in 2020, 10% above average (2015-2019).

Why are fruit and vegetables interesting?

The demand for fresh produce has grown globally and is now high profile and a high priority worldwide. For years, studies have confirmed that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides our body with important benefits.

The evidence is clear. Fruit and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. They help children grow and support physical, mental and social wellbeing for all ages.

They can help prevent all forms of malnutrition (undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, overweight and obesity) and reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases.

The benefits of eating fruit and vegetables come from the nutrients they contain, notably vitamins, minerals and fiber.

As consumers have understood the value of fresh fruit and vegetable consumption through interest in scientific studies that demonstrate their benefits, global interest in fresh produce has soared.

We are not only facing a new self-care and wellness culture but also a growing concern about the increasing rate of disease and the possibility of being able to prevent them through the food we consume.

In addition to all this, environmental awareness is also at the forefront of the consumers mind, when choosing sustainable food for consumption.

Does innovation in fruit and vegetables exist?

Compared to other foods such as cereals (rice, corn, wheat), investments and innovation programs in agricultural development of fruit and vegetable crops have not been boosted by government policies.

In the past, governments and international organizations have focused on ensuring food security in terms of calories rather than nutrients: they have put more effort into filling plates rather than increasing the variety of nutritional food on the plate.

The fresh produce sector is ripe for development for many reasons, including

●      High atomization and for its strong rural roots

●      Low technology and little investment in research

●      Long supply chains

●      Perishable products

Over the past 10 years we have seen an increase in technologies in the value chain that improve post-harvest services, storage, transportation, and processing to preserve nutrient content and flavor, and reduce losses.

We differentiate innovations depending on where we are in the value chain. At present the focus is on precision agriculture which will help the fresh produce sector, and other innovations such as digitization, blockchain and those related to ready-to-eat products and environmentally friendly packaging are not far behind.

Differential production

Introduction of new crops, mixing species or using agricultural techniques to improve crop resistance to pests are some of the innovations seen in this sector.

For years, organic production has been supporting innovation through a new way of cultivating and obtaining more respectful products, reducing input consumption such as pesticides and fertilizers. Organics is now a well-established, generating significant growth worldwide, outperforming conventional products by more than 5%.

Other important factors are the responsible use of resources such as water, perhaps the most critical resource.  Its scarcity is a real threat to growing crops.

A start-up called UTW is one of many companies now offering drone and satellite technology to monitor the needs of the soil through precision agriculture to detect if irrigation, fertilizer or pesticides are additionally required.

Functional properties

Foods that can provide beneficial values to an individual attract a lot of interest from consumers who see their health benefits as a way of preventing disease to maintain health and wellbeing.

Fruit and vegetables offer a multitude of benefits, as demonstrated by scientific studies.

Foods such as broccoli, avocado, pomegranate, and blueberries are seen as particularly beneficial, and this reputation helps to increase their consumption.

Convenient processing

Consumers demand new ways to present and process products that make them easier to consume and process, as well as keeping products fresher for longer.

We are used to seeing packaged fruits, vegetables (ready-to-eat-foods) but these did not appear until the mid-80s, when they started being marketed as a practical solution for the consumer.

Prepackaged fruit and vegetables have the advantage of not needing any processing at home as they are washed, cut into pieces and packaged in a protective atmosphere or vacuum packed, which gives them a longer shelf life.

Respectful packaging

The indiscriminate use of plastics in fruit and vegetable packaging is increasingly being rejected by a more respectful and conscientious consumer.

The new waste and packaging regulations tightens up controls, as there is now an obligation to remove plastic packaging from fruit and vegetables if they weigh less than one and a half kilograms, as well as imposing a tax on single-use plastic.

Using bio-degradable materials such as compostable materials made from sugar cane, corn, potato starch or algae offers a real advantage to the consumer by allowing them to discard the tray responsibly.

Other innovations are those that minimize packaging or bear the plastic free seal.

Sales care

Supermarkets and convenience stores understand that fresh produce attracts consumers and they are being increasingly used to attract consumers to the stores. Having a reputation for great fresh produce is a valuable accolade amongst food retailers.

Business models are being re-written to focus on the presentation and marketing of the fresh produce within a store. Much attention is now given to seasonal and locally grown produce where provenance is key.  

Accurate and traceable information

The consumer wants to know everything about the product, when it was grown, how it was grown and who grew it, supported by details of the cultivation techniques.

In recent years, we have become accustomed to the rapid growth of online sales and various platforms have been created that connect farmers with consumers, bringing the freshest products to their homes.

Transparency is and will be everything in the fresh produce supply chain. Retailers who cannot show and prove the provenance of the produce they sell will increasingly be disadvantaged. The uptake of traceability and blockchain technology through the sector bear witness to that.

Digital innovations make it easier to trace fresh produce from production to consumption. This expands market opportunities, reduces losses and waste and makes the value chain more transparent.

In addition, using new technologies and digital platforms such as Consentio supports producers by optimizing product management and properly providing information to the consumer, whilst also helping to reducing  waste.

Technology and digitization will continue to drive this revolution, which is already well underway, as can be seen by the increasingly informative product labels attached to the fresh produce. It will not be long now before the consumer will be able to scan the product bar code and see the provenance of the fruit or vegetable. Who grew it, when and where. What additives were used in the growing cycle. The consumer could later provide feedback directly to produce and grower, and potentially provide a rating. You could envisage a shopping community of consumers, discussing the produce between themselves and with the growers. You will have finally closed the supply chain ‘loop’, by joining the consumer directly with the producer. The possible implications of this are far-reaching. It could lead to shorter supply-chains. It could certainly change buying and supply patterns. But that chapter is yet to be written. For now, fresh produce is king, the digital supply chain is becoming a reality, and increasingly the consumer is in charge. Long may this continue.

Read it or stream it fresh produce industry insights every week.

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