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"The crisis is real, and it is getting worse"

Hort Connections 2024: Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is vital for industry

One of the key messages on Day 2 of Hort Connections 2024 was that the Australian fresh produce industry needs to work together to improve consumption.

The day began with a breakfast hosted by Perfection Fresh, and CEO Michael Simonetta told delegates that consumption of fruit and vegetables was dropping across Australia. That message was echoed across the day's presentations. Director of Red Rich Fruits, Matthew Palise told a forum on 'Brands Influence on Produce Premiums and Consumption' that often in fresh produce businesses, the consumer is forgotten.

He added that at the end of the day, everyone from growers to everyone across the supply chain had one goal, to sell products - and if everyone worked together as an industry first, before promoting individual brands, that would translate to better success for every individual company.

"You need to invest in talking to the consumer," he said. "Even if it is just an Instagram or TikTok page. Every grower wants to talk about getting more money on-farm, which is what they all need to survive - but that starts with the consumer. We have got to increase consumption. If every grower did something tomorrow, even through a social media post, and if we collectively keep at it, we can increase our industry brand – and then you can focus on your own brand as well."

It was a similar message from Justine Coates, who is Managing Director of the Fruit and Vegetable Consortium that has launched the 'Plus One Serve of Vegetables by 2030 Program'.

She says that consumers are eating 2.4 serves of vegetables, with each equating to 75g (which, on FVC research is actually less due to household wastage). However, if every consumer in Australia was to increase by one serve it would mean an additional nine million serves of extra vegetables per year - or 670,000 tonnes of volume.

"The crisis is real, and it is getting worse," she said. "The business case that was done four years ago shared with us that the numbers were pretty impressive; when we do the actual baseline, and do the true modelling, the numbers are phenomenal in terms of the opportunities that sit before us. It's not going to be easy, but most importantly, one serve (of extra vegetable consumption) will actually deliver $4.68billion in value. When we look at that for Australian vegetable growers and industry, that is almost $3.3billion in incremental value – that we could mean more than 12,000 regional jobs in communities and $1.3billion of costs avoided in terms of health care costs. That's just in the six-year term that we are proposing that this program be delivered."

She added that often there is a narrative of vegetables being too expensive, but her research found the average to be around 62c per serve, so changing the public perspective is important.

Sessions throughout the day were also held on topics such as drought, food waste, sustainable horticulture, labour, AgTech, food safety, packaging and soil and plant health.

Meanwhile, three presenters took part in a session on "How Technology is Changing the Fresh Produce Industry". One of the takeaway messages was that the data sets being collected by individual fresh produce companies were not being leveraged as much as they could be due to the fact that it is not being shared across the supply chain.

"Although the system is great and is helping us along the packing lines, I think the insights that we could have if we could then link that information across the entire journey of the produce that would help us make better decisions," Francesco Oliveri, Chief Innovation Officer of Perfection Fresh Group told delegates. "For example, instead of trying to estimate the shelf life of the product and when to send and when to ship it. Even if you can't do much with the data right now, try to collect as much information as possible because you will need that information in the future to build that model to be able to tell you how long that product will last and the conditions affecting that produce across the supply chain."

Day two ended with a trade show "Happy Hour" where growers and exhibitors took the opportunity to network. There is one more day of plenary sessions and trade show exhibitions before Hort Connections wraps up with the Gala dinner.