There's climate change, strict rules, and climbing raw material costs. These are major challenges for Belgian industry vegetable processors. Yet, the sector remains optimistic. There's still plenty of growth potential in vegetable consumption. Product development is also on the rise.
"Vegetables like peas and beans are in the field for a short time. So, they need more water while they're growing."
What if children can't get hot meals at school anymore? Or the eateries close? Then people cook at home more. That's exactly what happened recently. The foodservice sector is still on its head, not so the retailers. The fresh segment has been boosted. Sales of canned and frozen vegetables have also increased.
"People stockpiled canned and frozen vegetables, especially during the first lockdown. That's since changed, but more vegetables are still being sold. Our products then follow suit. People must keep eating, and many are cooking at home these days. Some consumers have less time but still want to eat healthy foods. For them, frozen vegetables or canned goods are a godsend," says Nele Cattoor.
She's the Belgian vegetable processors federation, Vegebe's general secretary. This organization includes both industrial vegetable wholesalers and frozen or canned goods' processors. Vegebe looks after its members' interests. It focuses on themes that concern the entire sector. These include the environment, working conditions, and quality improvement initiatives. And food safety, traceability, hygiene, and technology.
A supply system of which to be proud
It's a pity that the global pandemic prevented many schools from providing hot meals. And it remains to be seen whether this practice will ever return. "We, naturally, hope so. School and company caterers are an important sales channel for our producers. They also supply, for example, meal producers on cruise ships and airlines. As well as amusement parks and event caterers."
"It'll be a great boon when everything reopens. But we don't expect it to be quite like before. The pandemic has also made us realize that we have a sound supply system. Even at difficult times, there's enough product available. So logistically speaking, we're doing well. The sector's efforts over the years have paid off. We can be proud of that," Nele says.
Some producers also supply retailers. Sales to this channel could, therefore, partially compensate for the loss of food service sales. The retail sector remains a stable market for Belgian industrial processors' products. But, according to Nele, there's still room for improvement there too.
"Consumers still eat too few vegetables. But awareness of healthy, more plant-based eating is increasing. We must seize these opportunities throughout the chain, from fresh to frozen. One of the advantages of frozen and canned vegetables is convenience. You don't have to peel, cut, or wash these vegetables. That saves time and water."
Healthier, more conscious, and more plant-based
"Less food is wasted too. For example, too-small cauliflower florets are processed into cauliflower rice. Processors would otherwise throw those products away. They now have a much higher value. Product development is becoming increasingly important anyway. And it provides good opportunities for our producers," explains Cattoor.
"There's an increasing conscious interest in healthier, more plant-based products. That offers plenty of scope for new products like cauliflower and broccoli rice. There are also pizza bases made from vegetables, and vegetable burgers and snacks. But, of course, not everything makes it to the shelves. Still, I foresee plenty of opportunities, provided there's good cooperation."
The sector is also facing several challenges to which Vegebe is paying a lot of attention. Climate change and especially the dry weather, is high on their agenda. Belgian growers are struggling with a lack of water. Nele says this has been an issue for some time now. And it's, once again, the subject of discussion. "People are waiting for rain and hoping there won't be another heatwave. The crops can't take that, and there's too little irrigation capacity in Belgium."
"People are becoming more aware of healthier, more plant-based diets. We must seize these opportunities throughout the chain, from fresh to frozen."
"The country doesn't have enough water anyway. One option is for growers to build water buffers. In all fairness, this isn't easy, but we do encourage it. There are all kinds of rules and conditions. That makes it tough for farmers to obtain a permit for this. Some companies make water available to growers. The water must then, understandably, meet strict requirements."
Shift in cultivation due to water shortage
Combine the lack of water with the frequent dry periods. Then, it becomes harder to grow certain vegetables. Some crops, such as peas and beans, are in the field for only a short time. They need more water during this growing season. Other products like Brussel sprouts and leeks can still recover when there's an autumn shower.
"There's a higher chance of crop failure, resulting in a shift. Some crops are more sensitive to dry conditions. For those, we consider land in France or the Netherlands, for example. There, irrigation is possible. Of course, we'd prefer to continue growing everything in Belgium. But, that's not always possible," continues Nele.
The county's nitrogen policy and the ever-increasing price of raw materials are other challenges. As a result, things like packaging and packaging materials are becoming costlier. The general secretary says producers are finding it increasingly difficult to find staff too. She thinks, in the future, robotization and automation could partly solve this problem.
However, the biggest challenge facing the sector is the European Green Deal. It means crop protection products are one of the things that will disappear. "Of course, it's good to critically consider which agents pose a risk. But it does make cultivation difficult. We're now working with several other countries to set up a joint strategy. There's also a working group providing insight into the threats. Then we can act proactively."
"Frozen, canned carrots: "Frozen and canned vegetables are convenient and immediately ready to use. You don't have to peel, slice or wash them, thereby saving time and water."
Eat more veggies!
"But the Green Deal offers opportunities, as mentioned, for our sector too. We can respond very well to the shift towards increased vegetable consumption. We can offer vegetables that are the quickest to prepare, using the least amount of water," Nele says. "The message is and remains - eat more vegetables. Whether fresh, frozen, or canned, we all have the same problems and opportunities. I truly believe cooperation throughout the chain is the only way."
Most Belgian industrial vegetables leave the country. They go primarily to France, Germany, and the UK. But the USA is also an important buyer. Brussel sprouts are very popular there. The Middle East is also an emerging market. "About ten percent remains in Belgium. The average Belgian eats only 3.5 kg of frozen vegetables annually. That could easily be more. We must remember the good opportunities. Because they're there, you just have to want to see them," concludes Nele.
Vegebe is currently taking part in a scientific study into leeks and Brussel sprouts. This is research into things like which nutrients these vegetables contain. And what remains of these after preparation. The question is: Is there still a health benefit to be gained? This research could be greatly significant for the Belgian vegetable sector. That's given the large number of leeks and Brussels sprouts grown and processed in the country.