Can we meet rising demand for superfoods?

World Fruit Map 2018 shows latest trends

Consumption of ‘superfoods’ like avocados and blueberries has jumped in recent years. Demand for frozen fruit is also on the rise. What is the impact on the global food supply chain? And can production keep up with the demand?

world vegetable map

One of the main trends illustrated by the World Fruit Map 2018 is the impact on international trade of the increased popularity of avocados and berries. Cindy van Rijswick, Fruit and Vegetables Analyst at Rabobank, says, “Over the past decade, the trade in avocados has grown by more than 12% per year. That’s much faster than production, which increased by nearly 5% per year.”

Most instagrammed food

Although there is no hard data available, Van Rijswick thinks that attention given to the humble avocado on (social) media really has contributed to increased demand. “Avocado is one of the top 20 most instagrammed foods, a list that also includes pizza, burgers and sushi. Besides avocados being photogenic, versatile and healthy, their rising popularity is due to the fact that today’s avocados are good quality and ready to eat.

Avocados’ popularity extends beyond Western countries. China imported over 25 million kilos of them in 2015 and almost 30 million kilos in 2017, compared to just 1.5 million kilos in 2013.

More sustainable production

Environmental organizations point out the negative effects of the avocado hype: the large amounts of water and agrochemicals needed to grow them, deforestation, and the environmental impact of packaging and transporting them to other countries.

“In principle there is enough water in exporting countries like Peru and Chile thanks to the Andes,” says Van Rijswick. “Still, it is important to ensure that water is transported and used in the right locations as efficiently as possible. In the current buoyant market, with high average prices paid over the past few years, businesses should have sufficient financial scope to invest in making production more sustainable. Improved irrigation systems, the development of varieties that require less water, and different production methods can all play a role here.”

Blueberries and frozen fruit

The map also shows that demand for berries and frozen fruit has risen sharply. The trade in blueberries grew by 11% per year over the past decade. Demand for frozen fruit rose by 5% per year in the same period. Van Rijswick explains, “The popularity of berries has contributed greatly to higher demand for frozen fruit. It looks like the increased consumption of fresh fruit has not affected frozen fruit sales or vice versa. Instead, they have boosted each other’s growth.

“People are consuming these products more and more in products like yoghurt and smoothies, and have discovered that frozen berries are a practical alternative to fresh. The same goes for avocados and mangos, which can now frequently be found in the frozen food aisle in the supermarket.”

Growing shortage of fruit pickers

New cultivation systems are providing ever higher yields using fewer resources. Strawberries, for example, are often grown on covered tables these days instead of on the ground. The result is far more efficient use of chemicals, lower labor costs, and improved working conditions. That last point is important because there is worldwide shortage of workers willing to harvest fruit.

“Fruit pickers are becoming harder and harder to find, particularly when it comes to seasonal work,” says Van Rijswick. “That’s not just true for the US and Europe; it is also a growing issue in some areas of South America and elsewhere. By developing systems that make the work lighter, growers save money and workers benefit from better conditions. A next step is harvesting by machine or robot. Mechanical harvesters for blueberries already exist, but the berries picked this way are not of sufficient quality to be sold fresh. Robots are currently being developed to pick strawberries and I expect them to become deployable within the next few years.”

“Fruit pickers are ever harder to find”

- Cindy van Rijswick, Analyst Fruit, Vegetables, Floriculture at Rabobank

Ongoing challenges for fruit farmers are crop diseases and variable weather conditions. The latter are getting worse, according to Van Rijswick. “However, I am confident that the fruit sector will find ways of dealing with these. It does mean investing in covers, computerization, etc. and that is where the need for a strong financial position or a good bank comes in. The availability of credit is a major problem, especially in developing countries. Achieving stable yields is also a challenge. A lot of fruit is still traded by day or week trade, with prices varying enormously. That’s why I would welcome more long-term price agreements in the fruit chain.”