Stricter regulations from authorities, climate change, and consumers eating less fruit and vegetables – the fresh produce sector is facing a number of challenges. In this interview, Philippe Binard, General Delegate of Freshfel Europe, talks about possible solutions and why sustainability should not be used to gain competitive advantage.
Is it true that Europeans eat less fresh fruit and vegetables?
Yes, unfortunately that has been the sad truth in recent years. Compared to the turn of the century, consumers today eat one portion of fruit or vegetables less per day. However, given the repositioning of fresh produce in new market segments and the fact that consumers are more conscious about their health and increasingly aware of sustainable assets of fresh produce, a more positive image is forming.
In your opinion, how can the agricultural sector stimulate the consumption of fresh produce?
First of all, it’s important that the sector enables availability and accessibility of fresh fruits and vegetables, accommodating today’s busy lifestyles. That’s why fresh produce needs to be more convenient, being part of most meals or available as a snack to go, and it must always be high quality. This diversity is necessary due to an increased segmentation of consumers. Eating fruits and vegetables should be a tasty experience, a pleasure. And, looking into the future, it’s also important to educate children and teenagers in schools about healthy nutrition so that they can benefit from the wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables.
For many consumers it is important that fruits and vegetables are produced under good conditions. What has the agricultural sector done to increase the sustainability of their operations?
European farmers are permanently adapting their production models to the very strict European legislation on crop protection and residue limits. Producers have adopted good agricultural practices and integrated pest management systems to adapt to both the demanding European regulatory environment and the new environmental, societal, and sustainability concerns. The fruit and vegetable sector takes public concerns about food safety, food waste, and sustainability very seriously. In fact, sustainability is no longer just a buzzword – but rather the reality of the business, the cost of admission if you want to produce and sell these products.
Do the European authorities put a lot of pressure on the farmers?
Considering the wide range of priorities that impact growing practices, I would say there’s a lack of coherence in different EU policies at the moment. On the one hand, the number of crop protection products is decreasing significantly while at the same time farmers have to deal with new challenges to control new damaging pests and plant diseases. Moreover, farmers are facing challenges such as climate change, preventing microbiological contamination, and reducing waste. These conflicting moves will further increase the pressure on growers, especially in the upcoming years when the European Commission will be heading toward an evaluation of the plant protection and the maximum residue level (MRL) legislation.
About Freshfel Europe
The European Fresh Produce Association is the forum for the fresh fruit and vegetable supply chain in Europe and beyond. Its members and associated members are associations and companies that have an interest in the European fresh fruit and vegetable sector, including production, trade, logistics, and retailing. Freshfel is a non-profit association established under Belgian legislation dating back to 1919. The seat of the association is in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union.
How will the agricultural sector cope with these challenges?
Most of these challenges need to be addressed from a supply chain perspective. A reinforced cooperation along the entire food value chain will be the best way to find solutions that are practicable for all stakeholders. Food and crop safety as well as sustainability should not become an area that operators compete in but rather a goal that is shared and implemented by everyone – from growers to retailers.
Are there any innovations in the pipeline to support farmers?
Growers and stakeholders from the fruit and vegetable sector should be actively involved in research and innovation opportunities. This is, in fact, supported by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Policy Program. In our sector, the section on societal challenges is the most relevant part of the program. For the period between 2014 and 2020, a budget of approximately €4 billion has been allocated for research in, among others, the areas of food security, sustainable agriculture, and forestry. This is a tremendous opportunity and will be of great help to the agricultural sector.