The International Year of Fruits and Vegetables (IYFV) is the first of its kind. It focuses attention on foods that are well known to consumers for their health benefits, yet still insufficiently consumed. We asked Rosa Rolle and Dirk Schulz, two of the main FAO contributors to the event’s background document, why the FAO (Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) created this important annual event, and why now.
Get inspired and learn something new from our special guests!
Senior Entreprise Development Officer, Team Leader, Food Loss and Waste, Food and Nutrition Division (ESN), FAO
Food Safety & Quality Officer, Food Systems and Food Safety Division, FAO
The International Year of Fruits and Vegetables 2021 (IYFV) aims to raise awareness of, direct policy attention to, and share good practices on the nutritional and health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption. To help achieve this, FAO has developed a background paper. This document not only outlines the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption, but also examines the various aspects of the fruit and vegetable sector from a food systems approach: from sustainable production and trade, to loss and waste management. So, sustainable fruits and vegetables? Let’s get smart with Rosa and Dirk!
Why was it so important to draw attention to Fruits and Vegetables in 2021?
We know that fruits and vegetables are extraordinarily rich sources of vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber, and rich sources of beneficial phytochemical compounds like antioxidants, for example. Yet, at present, fruit and vegetable consumption is below expected levels. FAO and the World Health Organization recommend that adults consume at least 400 grams of fruit and vegetables per day to help prevent chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity, and to address micronutrient deficiencies. Today, the level of fruit and vegetable consumption globally falls short of this recommended daily intake, and there is a significant variation in the quantities consumed across and within countries. In 2017, the Asian region was-the only one that recorded the availability of adequate quantities of fruits and vegetables (470 g/capita/day) to meet the recommended level of consumption, but that does not necessarily mean that everyone in that region is consuming the recommended quantities. Assuring food safety and reducing high levels of loss and waste in fruits and vegetables that also impact the efficiency of the supply chains are also important.
The quality of fruits and vegetables is associated with subjective criteria in consumer’s perception. How can this be leveraged to reduce food waste?
Food quality describes the attributes or the characteristics that make a food attractive to a buyer or consumer. The perception of quality has changed over time. In the past, it was primarily understood as the absence of defects, fraud or adulteration. Nowadays, because most countries have food control systems in place, consumers look for other quality criteria, like the appearance of a fruit or vegetable: the size, the form, the color, the sensory properties, the nutritional value, the convenience, the origin, and so on. Quality has become a little bit more of a subjective matter. And because consumers around the world have different expectations depending on their culture, origin and environment, their preferences vary, as does their purchasing power. The cost can limit their access to certain fruits and vegetables, but it is always reflected in the quality.
I would suggest that we need to build a joint understanding of what is considered “quality criteria” for fruits and vegetables. A lot of consumers, particularly in developed countries, tend to feel that the quality of fruits is associated with their appearance. If the fruits are not the right size, shape or color, they tend to either throw them away or not buy them, and that’s how a lot of waste is created. These “ugly” fruits and vegetables still have the same nutritional value. They taste the same. Of course, we can overcome this obstacle through education and awareness raising, particularly among those in the supply chain, and especially retailers and consumers. For example, consumers could be educated or given ideas and recipes to use more ripe fruits, like using them in ways they might not have considered, such as, in juices, smoothies or desserts, where the texture is not so relevant.
How can we produce more and also promote better access to fruits and vegetables?
According to the FAO Flagship Publication titled the State of Food and Agriculture, 2019, which brings in a specific focus on food loss and waste; on average approximately 25% of the fruits and vegetables produced globally are lost in the supply chain between production and the market. In addition, fresh produce that deviates from what is considered optimal in terms of shape (for example, ugly fruits), size and color, is often removed from the supply chain, during sorting operations. So clearly, there is the need to do things differently.
It comes down to maximizing the use of fruits and vegetables that are produced and shifting from where we are now to more sustainable approaches using circular economy principles. Our current fruit and vegetable supply chains are linear and, many of the problems that we must deal with today are often the direct result of the “take, make, use and dispose” system that characterize these chains and result in high levels of food loss and waste. Toward that end, there is the need to:
- Improve storage systems and logistics for fruits and vegetables intended for the fresh market, in order to keep them fresh for longer periods.
- Make use of more sustainable options for packaging fresh produce.
- Process and/or preserve of fruits and vegetables to maximize their use and make them available on a year-round basis.
- Make available the so called “ugly fruits and vegetables” in retail, alongside the more cosmetically appealing fruits and vegetables, providing consumers the opportunity to purchase them.
- Educate consumers to shift their mindsets and attitudes toward buying “ugly fruits and vegetables”.
In the developing world, there is the need to build capacity in fresh produce supply chains to manage quality; improve the logistics systems and packaging in fresh produce supply chains to reduce losses, Governments also have a role to play in providing an enabling environment move these types of actions forward.
Don’t you think that climate change probably has a great impact on fruits and vegetable accessibility?
Yes, certainly. Climate change is already impacting fruit and vegetable production, often resulting in reduced yields and in some cases losses due to pest infestations of fruits and vegetables. In tropical countries, increasing temperatures resulting from climate change, will greatly impact the perishability of fruit and vegetables, necessitating greater attention to temperature management across the entire supply chain, as well as the need for cool storage. All these issues must be addressed using proactive approach. Many developing countries are already moving toward the development of sustainable “cold hubs” for example, that make use of solar energy for the cool storage of perishables in rural areas.
In tropical areas, fruits and vegetables perish quicker due to the high temperatures all year round. A sustainable cold chain can help ensure that fresh produce does not spoil during transport from rural to urban areas before it reaches the consumer. Finding innovative, climate-friendly solutions like solar or wind power can play an important role in areas where there is no electricity grid. We should not forget that the farmers grow fruits and vegetables, because they need to earn an income, which will be reduced if the produce spoils before it is sold. This is also a crucial aspect for a sustainable supply chain; everybody needs to get their fair share of the equation and maintain efficient supply chains to avoid a huge amount of food loss and waste. The less loss and waste there is, the better for everyone!
Can you give your opinion about the importance of seasonality regarding fruits and vegetables?
The fresh fruit and vegetable supply chain is largely driven by consumer demand. Consumers increasingly demand the year-round availability of a broad range fruits and vegetables, and this has resulted in the global sourcing of fruits and vegetables to meet this demand on a year-round basis. New methods and systems of production are required in order to ensure that quality requirements of the fruit and vegetable market can be met in a sustainable manner. Fruit and vegetable varieties with good shipping characteristics must be identified. Attention must also be paid to the quality of production inputs and particularly the quality and variety of seed.
The shorter a supply chain, the better, because this eliminates the need to maintain cold chains over a long distance. Fruits and vegetables are highly seasonal, as there are very few fruits and vegetables that grow all year round. In some countries where I have worked, mangoes were rotting on the ground because there were just too many during the height of the season, and then, during the rest of the year, people were looking for them and paying extremely high prices, or the fruit was not available at all. So, in order to address these issues, we need to find innovative and simple technologies, such as solar drying, to preserve and extend their shelf-life.