Does China’s hunger for blueberries disrupt the global market?

Demand for soft fruit is rising globally. After the long rise of blueberries, blackberries and raspberries now appear to be the next in line to experience a growth spurt. Cindy van Rijswick (Rabobank) and Mihai Ciobanu (fresh4cast) use these figures to substantiate the general trends on the soft fruit market. Despite all the positive figures, there are challenges that require a response as well.

The figures presented by Cindy and Mihai during the Global Berry Congress underline the growth of the soft fruit market. While 13.4 million tonnes of soft fruit were harvested in 2017, that will be 15.4 million tonnes in 2020, Mihai predicts. More than 70 per cent of global production consists of strawberries, but strawberries are exported the least in percentages. Production is also growing for blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. In 2020, two million tonnes of blueberries will be harvested, compared to 1.7 million tonnes in 2017. The volume of raspberries and blackberries increases from 1.3 million tonnes in 2017 to 1.4 million tonnes in 2020.

Mihai Ciobanu (fresh4cast) and Cindy van Rijswick (Rabobank) answer questions from the audience during the Global Berry Congress.
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Society of snackers
In the EU, the consumption of blueberries increased by eight per cent. That seems like a lot, but raspberries increased by 20 per cent. Cindy notes that raspberries come from a low position. The market also continues to grow in the US. Blueberries now have a market share of 20 per cent, but raspberries and blackberries are also taking up an increasing share of the market. “The market for raspberries and blackberries increases the quickest,” Cindy says. The largest markets for these varieties are the US, Germany and the UK.

“We live in a society of snackers, and soft fruit fits that consumption pattern,” Cindy explains the growth in this segment. In the US, the growth figure for processed and convenience products is much larger than that of unprocessed products.

Global blueberry market
For blueberries, the market is becoming increasingly more international. The Chinese market in particular shows a lot of growth. “That’s a good development. It gives the sector more options when there are problems on a market,” Cindy says. Mihai also mentions growing demand from China. “Demand in China is quickly increasing, and they pay better prices than the US.” That better price can be paid due to the increasing GNP and more disposable income of the average Chinese consumer. “You can already see Chile profiting from this.” However, this does pose a risk for the rest of the market. For example, Chile is the main supplier to the American market regarding blueberries. In the months of January and February, Chile is practically the only one on the market in both the US and Europe. When Chile starts focusing more on China, this could be very disadvantageous for the supply to these markets.

The US is the largest importer of blueberries. This country grows many blueberries, just like Argentina and Chile. Mihai mentions Peru. “Peru’s export is increasing considerably, particularly to China.” Asia is by far the largest production region in the world, but consumption on the continent is also significant. Because of that, there’s hardly any export, according to Mihai. “China produces 4.1 million tonnes of strawberries per year.” The US comes next, but at quite a distance. Both countries mainly produce for the domestic market.

Cindy: “We live in a society of snackers.”
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Dutch area of greenhouse strawberries increasing
Spain, Mexico and the US are the largest exporters of strawberries. Spain alone is good for 31 per cent of the export. Mexico is good for another 18 per cent. Import is showing global trends for stable growth. For raspberries and blackberries, the largest producers can be found in Mexico, the US, Russia, Poland and Serbia. Mexico is also one of the largest exporters of this soft fruit.

“In the Netherlands, more and more strawberries are grown in greenhouses. We expect that will continue to grow,” Cindy continues. In 2000, the area consisted of slightly more than 100 hectares. In estimates for this year, that number has quadrupled.

Dirty Dozen, packaging and workers
Despite all of these positive figures, the sector is also facing some challenges it should find an answer to. The first challenge mentioned by Cindy is sustainability. “Strawberries are at the top of the list of Dirty Dozen, that could be a problem in future.” A second challenge is in packing material. In the UK, Supermarkets have already started a war on plastics. Soft fruit needs packaging, but these trends do have to be translated to the sector. A third challenge is more political. “The sector is flourishing due to free trade, but we’ve seen protectionism arising. It’s important the sector continues to plead for free trade.”

The availability of workers is a fourth challenge. Globally, the number of harvest employees is decreasing, which could disrupt the market. In the US, the number of Mexican workers decreased significantly from 6.9 million in 2007 to 5.6 million in 2016. The shortages on the labour market also play their part in European countries.

A final challenge is a growth that’s too rapid, which is particularly risky for blackberries and raspberries. The export of Mexico, Spain and Morocco is quickly growing, but that increasing export could also disrupt the market. “Despite a growing demand for, for example, blackberries in the US, prices are under pressure,” Cindy concludes.

Please click here for the photo report.

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