Extending the shelf life of fruit and vegetables

The clock ticks away for certain fresh foods, such as vegetables, on their way to the tables of consumers around the world. The global trade is small, but it has potential to grow as infrastructure improves and demand rises. Their short shelf life causes these products to be sold mostly locally. Sometimes not even that.

The per capita intake of fruits and vegetables is well below the recommended 400 grams per day; in some places, it lies between 20 and 50% below what is recommended, according to the UN.

Bad diets in rich countries, together with poverty and food insecurity in the less developed countries, prevent increasing consumption, which would help reduce the risk of chronic diseases and save up to 2.7 million lives a year.

However, "the behaviour of consumers is changing and they want more fruits and vegetables in their diets in order to protect their health," says the economist of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Jean Luc Mastaki.

In addition to the demand, another important factor is the ability of producers to extend the shelf life of this type of perishable products and facilitate their packaging, transportation and marketing.

According to Mastaki, the technological improvements and the opening of the markets have contributed to the increase of global trade, although at the moment, only 5% of the vegetables that are grown end up in international trade.

According to a recent study by Rabobank, 70% of those foods are sold fresh. It is a booming market, especially outside the United States and the European Union (EU).

There are a number of different processing techniques available in order to protect the products' properties beyond their natural cycle, although some processed products, such as canned products, are no longer consumed as much as a decade ago.

What vegetable exporting countries like Mexico (focused on North America), Spain or the Netherlands (within the European Union) are asking for is easy access to the markets.

Despite their efficiency, Rabobank analyst Cindy van Rijswick doubts the capacity of these producers to notably increase their sales abroad in the face of competition from local farmers and their limited resources. "The opportunity is more on increasing the turnover with the export of more valuable products, instead of striving to ship larger volumes," she says.

North America, Western Europe and Japan are the main destinations, according to the study, while India, China, the Emirates and even Russia are increasing their imports, although more at a regional level.

In this context, developing countries continue to have "difficulties in entering the global value chains," due, among other things, to poor infrastructure and lack of technology, says Mastaki.

The expert considers it essential to strengthen the capacity of small producers to adapt to phytosanitary standards and rules, as well as to integrate them into cooperatives and economies of scale together with large-scale distributors in order to improve their efficiency.

An additional challenge in the horticultural sector is reducing waste, as 45% of all annual production is lost or wasted, the equivalent of 3.7 billion apples, according to FAO data.

Hernán Manson, specialist at the International Trade Centre of the United Nations, emphasizes that "sustainability begins with the producer," to which he recommends diversifying their products in order to avoid the impact of the numerous internal and external factors (including climate) that the poor countries suffer.

In order to obtain a quality production that will help you generate an income, you need access to the market and information, but also institutional, technical and financial support.

"It is convenient for them to sell in the domestic, regional and export markets," adds Manson, "adapting to the different standards and processing the surpluses in order to make the most of the resources available."

Source: EFE

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